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HD-124 Special Election Sets Record for Low Voter Turnout

Tuesday's special election to replace former state Rep. José Menéndez appears to have set a record low for voter turnout in races of its kind.

A man casts his ballot in a 2014 election.

How low can you go? Apparently 2.25 percent. 

That's the share of registered voters who cast ballots Tuesday in the special election for Texas House District 124. According to unofficial results, less than 2,000 of the district's 88,006 registered voters weighed in.

If that number stands when the votes are certified, it will mark an unflattering milestone for a state with an already bad rap when it comes to voter participation — the lowest turnout rate on record in a competitive special election for a legislative seat.

Tuesday's contest, which sent two Democrats to a yet-to-be-scheduled runoff, was the sixth special election held in Texas, and the third in Bexar County, since last November. The past four months have seen special elections with four of the 10 lowest turnout rates in modern Texas history, according to data provided by the Texas Legislative Council that did not include runoffs.

Analysts say it's no surprise voters are skipping the polls, especially in the election-weary San Antonio area. Bexar County elections administrator Jacque Callanen said Tuesday's election was the area's 13th in the same number of months. 

"I think it's voter fatigue, but also I think it's for many of our voters, they don't know what they're about," Callanen said of the quick-turn elections. "They don't know who's running. I think it's just a big combination of that."

Historically, turnout rates have varied for legislative special elections, ranging from Tuesday's record low to a high of 57.6 percent in November 1996. Contests scheduled on days that have other elections on the ballot — such as gubernatorial and presidential — tend to draw more interest.

But even in the higher-profile contests, the state's voter participation is nothing to brag about. Just 28.5 percent of eligible voters turned out for last year's midterms, which included a blockbuster gubernatorial race. The preliminary figure gave Texas the second-lowest midterm turnout rate in the country. 

"It shows that there is a tremendous amount of disinterest, and perhaps disillusionment, in the democratic process," said Sharon Navarro, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. "It’s hard voters for to concentrate on a race when people think the government doesn’t do anything for them." 

Ina Minjarez, the former Bexar County prosecutor who was the top vote-getter Tuesday, said her campaign knew that — between the recent slew of special elections and ongoing San Antonio city races — it would be up against voter exhaustion. After six campaign mailings, she still ran into confused voters. The election was called after former state Rep. José Menéndez won a promotion to the upper chamber in his own special election. 

"They would say, 'Well, we voted for José already,' and they didn't know there was already another election to fill his seat," Minjarez said.

Minjarez said she fears turnout for her runoff with Delicia Herrera, a former member of the San Antonio City Council, will be no different. Callanen said her department has already asked Gov. Greg Abbott's office to keep in mind when he schedules the runoff that Fiesta — San Antonio's biggest festival — is April 16-26. 

In any case, Callanen said, the record-low turnout "really is disheartening, and we're going to turn right around and do it again with the runoff." 


Disclosure: The University of Texas at San Antonio is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Politics José Menéndez