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Lack of Competition Keeps Voters at Home

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Get-out-the-vote efforts dot the Texas landscape, from partisan efforts focused on getting one party or another out to the polls, to nonpartisan campaigns that push for civic participation. Then there’s the effort made by the state’s top election official, Secretary of State Hope Andrade.

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

“We hope that everyone who’s registered to vote goes out and votes on Election Day,” Andrade said. “I’m more focused on making sure that our registered voters have all the information they need.”

For her, it’s about reaching out to the people who are likely to vote and getting them to the right polling place on the right day. State election officials, especially in larger urban counties, try to put early voting locations where people usually go during the week.

“So, if you’re on your way to work, and you see a polling place, you can stop there,” Andrade said. “If you’re on your way to drop off your kids at school and you see a polling place, you can stop there. So this is very convenient. It’s accessible. Sometimes people say, I don’t have time to vote, or it takes too much time to vote. If you vote during early voting, it just takes a few minutes.”

But easy access to the polls alone isn’t enough to get people to vote. Neither is playing to a person’s sense of civic engagement.

“There’s only a small part of the voters who vote because they think they should,” said Peck Young, director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Austin Community College. During his previous career as a campaign strategist, he was constantly trying to find and turn out voters across Texas.

The college just released a statewide study examining why registered voters don’t vote. Young says that, contrary to some expectations, race isn’t the top predictor of who won’t vote.

“The poorer you are, the less educated you are, the less likely you are to participate,” he said. Both of those, income and education, do tend to skew along racial lines; the state’s Hispanic and African-American populations tend to be both poorer and less educated than whites.

But Young says the second biggest factor is whether or not you have anything to vote for.

“There’s also a phenomenon of people in local districts in which there’s no race don’t participate,” he said. “And of course in Texas, people don’t vote because Texas is not in play.”

Republican domination in statewide positions and the redrawing of local districts every 10 years leaves little in doubt after the party primaries.

But Young’s study did reveal one surprise. He says a key demographic, described as “breadwinners” in the study, was not voting. Those are middle-income homes with two working parents and at least one child. Young says this demographic should be at the top of any get-out-the-vote efforts.

“They’re not that hard to find, and they should be somebody who should be voting, and they should be able to be reached, and they should be participating,” he said. “And they shouldn’t be dropped off the list because they don’t participate. They should be a high-priority target to be motivated.”

But in the end it takes well-funded get-out-the-vote efforts to reach disengaged voters. Without a competitive statewide race, it’s hard to raise money for such an effort. Part of what makes a competitive race is voter interest, a cycle that often leaves voters asking, “Why bother?”

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2012 elections