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Texans Leave the Voting to a Small Minority

With redistricting fights pushing the state's primary closer to summer, voter turnout could be even lower than normal.

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It doesn’t take very many people to win an election in Texas.

With redistricting fights pushing the primaries closer to summertime — and further from the possibility of giving the state’s Republican voters any say in who should be their presidential nominee — turnout could be even lower than normal.

“Normal” is a relative term when it comes to turnout in Texas elections.

Remember that big gubernatorial fight the Republicans had in 2010? Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison each spent more than $20 million on their campaigns. Debra Medina, a political newcomer appealing to fiscal conservatives and Tea Party voters looking for alternatives to the career politicians on the ballot, brought even more attention to the race.

At the time, the state had 18.8 million people who were old enough to vote. That big, fat, exciting Republican primary attracted fewer than 1.5 million of them — less than 8 percent.

The Democratic primary that year had seven candidates for governor in it, but former Mayor Bill White of Houston won it without raising his heart rate, or anyone else’s. Turnout was 3.6 percent of the state’s voting age population.

Perry ultimately needed only about 4 percent of the eligible voters to secure the nomination — tantamount, in this reliably red state, to winning another term as governor.

Presidential elections draw crowds. Democrats surprised everyone in 2008 by getting all the way to Super Tuesday without having decided between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Republicans had already settled on John McCain, though Mike Huckabee was still turning heads. That year, Democrats got 16.2 percent of the eligible adults in Texas, and the Republicans got 7.7 percent.

That’s electoral anemia: it’s an outstanding year when only one in four eligible adults votes.

Expect a weaker showing this year. The primaries were supposed to happen in less than three weeks, giving Republicans a pretty good chance of voting before their party had settled on a presidential nominee and producing a good turnout as a result.

But the date vaporized in the wake of redistricting litigation. Now it appears that the primaries will happen on May 29, or even later. A gaggle of election administrators from across the state told federal judges this week that any earlier date would set at least some of them up for failure.

And the court has all but ruled out a split primary, with the presidential elections in April and everything else, from the United States Senate races down to the county races at the bottom of the ballot, in May or June. It’s expensive, and lawyers say the state can’t pay for it.

The judges haven't asked many questions about turnout, but turnout underlies some of the legal arguments. A presidential race is a draw, and people in both parties fear that a split primary would lower turnout.

A late primary could also suppress turnout. Voting in June — after school is out and summer plans are under way — won’t get people off their couches, especially if the races are boring. If there’s not a good fight on the ballot, civic responsibility is the only motivation to vote. Even a May 29 primary comes with a summer problem: the runoff following that election would fall on July 31.

A split primary could present an advantage for some candidates and campaign consultants, according to Craig Murphy, whose firm counsels Republicans. The earlier election would show which voters are engaged — a good list of prospects to pursue for the later elections for Congress and the Legislature. If it comes to a split primary, he’s not worried.

That’s not the conventional wisdom.

“If we have a split primary, I would not want to be a Republican incumbent,” said Jeff Crosby, a Democratic consultant. “Presumably turnout will drop significantly, meaning a larger percentage of the voters will be foaming-at-the-mouth freak shows — a k a the Tea Party. They are the Mikey of politics: They don’t like anyone.”

Democrats, without a contested presidential primary and without the internal frictions that currently bother the majority party, don’t have that problem. “Strangely, we Democrats do not appear, for the moment, to be forming our traditional circular firing squads,” Crosby said, adding a caveat: “There is time.”

But the parties share the bigger problem on Election Day: Most Texans will be doing something else.

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