Harris County has a voting problem, and Fred Lewis aims to do something about it.
The ethics reform lobbyist and campaign finance lawyer has launched a new nonpartisan voter registration drive that targets what he calculates are the 600,000 unregistered adult citizens there out of about 2.3 million who are eligible to vote. His team wants to sign up 100,000 of them — all in time for the November election. He sat down with the Tribune last week to talk about the project, Houston Votes 2010, which he hopes will get at least 50,000 new people to the polls.
Part of what makes Lewis believe he can meet that ambitious goal is the success of a similar effort administered in 2008 by the Texans Together Education Fund, a grassroots community outreach program that he founded. It registered 24,000 low-income residents, 65 percent of whom actually cast a ballot.
Texans Together will also finance this new effort, which it estimates will cost around $600,000, through donations. About a third of that money has been raised. Lewis says a two-pronged approach — canvassing homes and setting up storefront booths — positions Houston Votes 2010 for success as well.
For Lewis, the demographics of the state’s most populous county make it the perfect laboratory for a voter registration project. As the home of an international port, Harris County attracts immigrants from all over the world. Voter disengagement, measured by voter registration levels, is always higher in multicultural, moderate-to-low-income areas with high mobility rates — all characteristics of Houston's older suburbs. And more Hispanics and Asian-Americans, two of the groups least engaged, live there than in any other county in the state. According to 2008 census data, only 38 percent of Hispanics voted in Texas, compared to an average of 50 percent nationwide. Only in Arizona is that number lower. And in Harris County, Lewis says, Hispanics vote in even smaller numbers. Based on his research, Hispanic voter turnout there was in the “low 20s,” and, he says, even fewer Asian-Americans vote in Harris County than Hispanics.
Lewis says voting statistics in Texas House districts, which contain roughly 135,000 people, illustrate the magnitude of the disengagement of those groups. In affluent areas, 90,000 people usually vote. In districts with large African-American populations, fewer than 60,000 people typically vote. In multicultural districts, about 45,000 vote. In those with high Hispanic and Asian populations, that number can fall below 20,000.
Another group that doesn’t turn out to vote: young people. They're especially important because, as Lewis says, studies show that "if you can get people to start voting early, they'll continue voting.” The project will use a different tactic to target them: viral videos like the one below.
The demographic composition of Harris County means that “a large swath of the population” has disregarded the political process. To Lewis, that means candidates aren’t competing for their voters, and their interests — in reducing crime, fixing potholes, or improving schools — are left out of governing.
Lewis is adamant, too, that the drive is “strictly nonpartisan,” though it’s taking place in Harris County — home of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White — and aimed at traditionally Democratic segments of the populace. He challenges the notion that low-income and minority groups are "monolithic in their views.” And he stresses that Houston Votes won’t be working with partisan groups or their adjuncts, instead partnering with other nonpartisan organizations like the League of Women Voters, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials and the National Urban League.
When talking about the importance of the project, Lewis circles back to the future ethnic makeup of Harris County. Approximately 66 percent minority, Harris County is one of the most diverse counties in the country, and according to Lewis, census numbers show that will grow to 80 percent minority by 2020. If those predictions bear out, it could mean that a significant portion of the population will withdraw from the voting process, which to Lewis underscores the importance of such registration drives.
"Texas is going to be diverse — that is over,” he says. “The question is, how are we going to address it."