Analysis: For Voters, a Few Discouraging Words

A wind-blown sign directed voters to Barton Hills Elementary, Precinct 342, Austin on Nov. 5, 2013.
A wind-blown sign directed voters to Barton Hills Elementary, Precinct 342, Austin on Nov. 5, 2013.

Just when the campaigns begin imploring us to vote, we see reports about elections and election laws gone haywire.

This is the sprint — the time of the election year when campaigns that have been running for months begin the race to the November elections. Most voters are just now turning their attention to politics, as commercials, local appearances, debates, tweets and other postings proliferate.

That said, Texas sure has a funny way to get people interested in politics.

Look at the news.

This week, a throng of lawyers started what is expected to be a two-week trial, with a federal judge in Corpus Christi hearing a challenge to the state’s voter ID law. That is the law that requires you to show photo identification in addition to your voter registration card [Editor's note: The registration card is not required at the polling place.] to cast a ballot. Generally speaking, Democrats oppose the requirement and contend that it discourages people from voting. Republicans are, generally speaking, supportive of the law, saying it ensures that only those who can legally vote are able to do so.

 

That trial is not likely to affect this year’s election, but it might appear to voters that the state is trying to do for the election booth what the Transportation Security Administration has done for air travel.

Then come allegations from the FBI, revealed in court documents reported by the McAllen Monitor, that the campaign manager for an unnamed Hidalgo County commissioner used cocaine to buy votes in the 2012 primary election.

That does not build your confidence in democracy as it is practiced in Texas.

And there is the report from The Dallas Morning News about a criminal investigation of Houston Votes, a group that was trying to register low-income voters in advance of the 2010 election. Another group accused it of voter fraud, prompting the state attorney general to confiscate its office equipment and investigate. And Houston Votes did fire several employees for mistakes like submitting duplicate voter registration applications. No charges were filed, but the group’s leaders say their financing dried up and their voter drive fell apart.

Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, told reporters that he was not aware of the raid at the time, but defended his employees and said the investigation was justified. Supporters of Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, see it the other way — that this is a case where Republicans are trying to keep Democrats from the polls.

Statewide turnout is always lower in years without a presidential race on the ballot — no reason to think this one will disrupt that pattern.

The races for Congress and state Legislature are remarkably noncompetitive this year. Even using a liberal definition of “competitive,” only about a dozen of the nearly 200 races would qualify. The votes cast in most of those will be examples of civic duty and not of hard choices.

The top races are a mix, with an expensive and high-profile race for governor and another, for lieutenant governor, in its wake, and scattered contests of interest, like those for comptroller and attorney general.

Only the most dedicated fight promoters expect a robust turnout. Races with lots of money, publicity and a high level of uncertainty about the outcome — like the Democratic primary race between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008 — can drive more people to vote.

At the state level, it is harder to do. Four prominent Republican officeholders ran for lieutenant governor this year, but only 7.2 percent of the state’s voting-age population turned out. A mere 3.98 percent came back for the runoff between Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and State Sen. Dan Patrick, a contest won by the challenger.

It seems unlikely, but the race for governor might change that. The news here at the beginning is certainly a dark omen. Everybody in politics promotes voting the way dentists promote flossing, but challenges to voting rights and allegations of illegal incentives to vote and improprieties about encouraging new voters cannot help.

It makes the entire enterprise seem rather unsavory.