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Dead or Alive, Texas Voters Will Find Choices Limited at Polling Places

Many of the measures designed to make the ballot box more secure — like asking people to affirm that they are, in fact, alive — create hurdles for a public that isn't terribly motivated to vote in the first place.

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How would it work if policymakers actually tried to get everybody to vote?

Some are so worried about security that they have created real and virtual barriers around voting. It’s the same magic they performed at your local airport. It’s secure, but it’s a pain in the neck. Staying home is more attractive than ever.

The latest security episode features the Texas secretary of state and the Harris County clerk’s offices, which both started purges of dead voters this month. They wanted to get the names of dead people off the lists of Texans allowed to vote, guarding against people showing up to vote in the name of the dearly departed.

Dead people have turned up on Texas voter rolls before, sometimes voting in alphabetical order (ghosts are so organized). It’s not like someone recently invented this problem the election officials are working to solve.

But the solution, like the voter ID ruckus or the battle over how political districts were drawn, arguably creates obstacles for voters — unlike the rest of us, they have to prove they're alive before they vote. If the aim was to make voting easier and to make more people vote, is this how they would go about it? Wouldn’t there be a way to vote electronically? You can move your money around that way, and that’s secure. Wouldn’t the political districts be more competitive, giving voters more choices and, presumably, better reasons to vote?

It’s probably unreasonable — silly, even — to ask a Legislature elected by a small minority of the state’s population to do anything that would really change the system that got them elected.

Only half of the state’s voting-age population votes even in the most interesting, most contested elections. In the 2008 presidential election, 45.5 percent of the voting-age population turned out in Texas. In that year’s primaries — considered high-turnout elections by historical standards for the main political parties — 23.9 percent of the-voting age population showed up.

Fewer than half of us voted that year, and about half of those voters took part in the party primaries, where the state decides most of its elections. In 2010, the primary turnout was less than half the general election turnout.

This year, for instance, only two of the 36 Congressional districts will have competitive contests and one of those — CD-14 — is competitive only if the Democrat, former U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson of Beaumont, can overcome the normal pattern in a district drawn to elect a Republican.

Only one of the 31 seats in the State Senate appears to be truly competitive. Fewer than a dozen of the 150 seats in the House are really competitive.

In all three cases, most of the districts were drawn to favor one party or the other. This is a Democratic district where Republicans need not apply for public service. That is a Republican district designed to keep out Democrats.

Legislative turnover often peaks in redistricting years, and, in fact, 40 members of the Texas House won’t be back in January, either because they quit, ran for something else or got beaten in the primaries. All 150 seats are on the ballot in November. But 98 of them feature either a Republican or a Democrat without major party opposition.

These people know how to read a political map.

The folks in charge — Republicans and Democrats alike — have made things safer for the folks in charge. It’s still possible to beat an incumbent, but it’s easier to do it in a primary than in a general election.

Exceptions do come along. In 2010, conservatives unhappy with the direction of the country tossed Democratic incumbents here and in other states. The Texas House had 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats before that election, and 99 Republicans and 51 Democrats when it was over. Three of those Democrats looked at the results and decided to change parties, bringing the tally to 102-48.

That Republican majority drew maps that left only a handful of decisions to general election voters. Most candidates who survive the spring survive for the whole election year.

Suppressing competition arguably suppresses turnout. If the contests in your area are basically over, why vote?

Maybe dead voters aren’t the problem.

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2012 elections Voter ID