Skip to main content

With Paltry Turnout, Last Word Goes to the Few

Voter turnout for the July 31 runoff is likely to fall well short of 1993, when 1.8 million voters cast ballots in the special runoff for a U.S. Senate seat, which Kay Bailey Hutchison won.

Lead image for this article

It is easy to lament low voter turnout. Only 11 percent of the state’s voting age adults showed up for the May primaries.

But look at their clout: Every actual voter was making a decision on behalf of nine people. In the runoff voting that starts next week and ends on July 31, those voters will probably have even greater power.

The Republican primary, with 25 races from the United States Senate to the Statehouse, is bigger than the Democratic runoff, with 12. Both have Senate runoffs — Ted Cruz and David Dewhurst on the Republican side, and Paul Sadler and Grady Yarbrough on the Democratic side.

Most of us, as usual, will sit back and watch — if we are not sitting back and ignoring the proceedings altogether. That is not cynical, it is in the numbers.

The record for modern Texas runoffs was set in 1993, a summer affair that followed Lloyd Bentsen’s move from U.S. senator to Treasury secretary during Bill Clinton’s first term as president.

The first election was at the beginning of May, a multiparty mix of 24 candidates from the Republican, Democratic, People’s, Libertarian and Socialist Workers parties, with a half-dozen independents tossed in for seasoning. It got a lot of attention, and nearly 2.1 million voters turned out.

U.S. Sen. Robert Krueger, a Democrat who had been appointed by Gov. Ann Richards to fill in for Bentsen until the special election, made it into the runoff with Kay Bailey Hutchison, then the state treasurer. And this is the number that is shocking, especially if you have picked your way through the runoff statistics of the last two decades: Nearly 1.8 million voters came back a month later for the final decision.

In a state where the average runoff does well to bring back one voter for every two who appeared in the first round, that was huge.

Fast forward 19 years. Because of redistricting litigation, the state primaries were delayed until May 29, with runoffs pushed back to July 31. That same Senate seat is open again, and for a variety of reasons, the pool of candidates is smaller and less experienced.

For one thing, the 1993 contest got a huge amount of news coverage and was the only thing of interest on the ballot. The redistricting has dragged out this year’s politics, and the presidential race has snagged a good deal of the attention that might otherwise have gone to a top-of-the-ticket race here.

Because the 1993 contest was a special election, officeholders could run without sacrificing their posts; this year, they had to choose between re-election and a shot at the Senate. Members of Congress jumped into the earlier race knowing that if they lost, they would still have their jobs. It was a freebie. That was not true this year.

In 1993, Texas was a two-party state. This year, it would be a tide-turning, bone-rattling, earth-moving surprise to see a Democrat break 45 percent — much less 50 percent — in a statewide general election. Earlier this month, Sadler, the more prominent of the two Democrats running for the seat, sent out an e-mail proposing a cross-state tour that he hoped would raise $15,000 over a month’s time. That is the same as six Democratic donors giving the maximum they are allowed to contribute. In a normal year, a candidate from either faction would be able to raise that much selling lemonade in a parking lot in the nicer parts of Houston or Dallas or San Antonio.

Combined, almost 2 million people voted in the two Texas primaries this year. On average, one in three will come back for the runoff; if it is a good year, nearly 1 million will show.

Shake it all out and it is likely that it will require fewer than 300,000 people to choose the winner in the Republican primary. And if that is the primary that chooses the next senator — it looks like a reasonable bet, given recent history — that is the number of Texans it will take to choose the next senator.

Think of it: If everyone who is eligible voted, it would take more than 9 million votes to become a senator from Texas. Instead, every vote cast for the winner of the Republican primary effectively represents the power of 30 adults going to the polls.

The math is simple: At some point, votes begin to count. 

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

The Texas Tribune Member Drive Fall 2020 banner

This public-service journalism is made possible by readers like you.

Donate now