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Analysis: When It Comes to Voter Turnout, Texas is at the Back of the Line

In the last two elections, Texas came in last or close to last among the 50 states in voter turnout. Some experts blame the lack of competition for the state's anemic voter engagement.

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Voter turnout in Texas is indisputably awful.

The March primaries drew 1.9 million, with only 560,033 voting in the Democratic contest and the rest voting in the more competitive Republican races. According to the Texas secretary of state’s office, there were 18.9 million adults in the state in March, and 13.6 million of them were registered to vote.

Texans did even worse in the runoff last month. Only 951,461 voted — 201,008 in the Democratic primary. The competitive pickings were admittedly slim on that side of the ballot, but there is no way to spin Texas voters’ anemic level of interest into a positive commentary on civic engagement.

“It is kind of an electoral wasteland — not a lot of competition, not a lot of motivation for the parties to get out and mobilize,” said Michael P. McDonald, associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University. “If there is no battle, they just sit back and become weak and flabby.”

In years when voters are not driven to the polls by presidential races — those always inflate the numbers — Texas is one of the worst places in the country for voter turnout and engagement.

In 2010, 32.1 percent of the state’s eligible adults voted in the general election, according to the United States Elections Project maintained by McDonald. Only one place was worst: the District of Columbia, with 28.9 percent. The national rate was 41 percent — still lousy, but much better than in Texas. Minnesota was at the head of the class that year, turning out 55.4 percent of its eligible population.

By the Elections Project’s calculation, 15.5 million Texans were eligible to vote that year. Fewer were registered to vote, but the state had that many adults who were both citizens and non-felons (along with nearly three million adults who were not eligible). Most of them could have voted if they had wanted to vote.

Competition motivates voters, McDonald said: “They will think their votes matter, and the campaigns will work hard to get people to vote.”

While the numbers change a little bit in presidential years, Texas is still at the back of the pack. In 2012, 49.7 percent of its eligible adults turned out. The national rate was 58.2 percent. Those Minnesota voters maintained their bragging rights, with 75.7 percent of eligible adults casting ballots. Texas was not at the bottom, but it was in the vicinity of the worst, leading only Hawaii, West Virginia and Oklahoma in turnout that year.

Those 2010 and 2012 numbers are from general elections, and in Texas, most races have been decided in the primaries — in which the turnout has been much lower than in the general election. Most races have been decided by the time the November voters tune in.

Redistricting is one reason. Most districts are drawn to favor one party or another, meaning that the winner of the Democratic or Republican primary will win in November unless they make a terrible mistake and also have an opponent on the general election ballot. Texas has 36 congressional seats. In seven of them, the Republican candidate has no Democratic opponent. In six, the Democratic candidate has no Republican opponent. Only one of the remaining seats, the 23rd Congressional District, is considered winnable by either major party in November. The overall level of competition is similar in the 31-member Texas Senate and in the 150-member Texas House.

Try selling that to an unmotivated voter.

Statewide, the problem also has to do with the Republican Party’s long winning streak in Texas. Like a long spell of anything — rain, San Antonio Spurs wins, drought — it becomes more and more difficult to imagine a different result. It begins to feel as if only one outcome is possible.

That is also hard to sell to an unmotivated voter, but it is possible. Look at the jump in turnout in presidential years, with their wall-to-wall news coverage and advertising. It looks like a battle, and a close one, and it draws people to the polls.

It might not change the results. The Republican ticket featuring Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan received 57.2 percent of the vote in Texas in 2012. Republican Gov. Rick Perry got 55.1 percent in his re-election bid in 2010. That presidential race — the noisier of the two — drew an extra three million Texans to the polls.

It looked like a race.

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