Analysis: Low Voter Interest, High Interest to Others

Do the math: The support of two or three out of every 100 people, depending on the year, is all that’s needed to decide the constitutional changes the rest of us have to live by. 

Marjorie Kamys Cotera

Constitutional amendment elections are food for cynics.

Turnout, even by the state’s routine sorry standards, is execrable. In the 2013 version, 6.1 percent of the state’s adults voted. The 2011 election brought out 3.77 percent.

Do the math and it means two or three out of every 100 people, depending on the year, are all that’s needed to decide the constitutional changes the rest of us have to live by. That’s fresh fodder for finger-waggers, justification for cynics and — for that small group of Texans who think politically and tactically — the sound of opportunity knocking on the door. This is the kind of election where big changes can float right past the unwitting electorate.

For the record, you’re supposed to be voting today, or soon, on the latest set of changes to the state Constitution. Early voting continues through Oct. 30. Nov. 3 is Election Day.

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The outcomes are likely to be decided, in large measure, by the voters of Harris County, where there is a race for mayor of Houston that might attract voters who don’t really give a flip about the Texas Constitution.

Bexar County voters have a special election for an open Texas House seat, but those contests usually don’t attract much attention. For what it’s worth, six candidates are vying for the spot left open by the early resignation of Joe Farias, D-San Antonio. 

But constitutional amendments are the main dish for voters statewide.

The first proposal has both obvious and hidden beneficiaries. It would increase the size of homestead exemptions from residential property taxes. That’s worth about $126 to the average homeowner. And if it passes, it would ban transfer taxes on real estate transactions — a tax on home sales would be one example — an item of deep interest to the state’s Realtors. They fear the state’s lawmakers might see that tax as an easy way to raise a lot of money from relatively few taxpayers in a way that might cut into those real estate agents’ sales.

That’s not a baseless fear. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Texas is one of only 13 states without such a tax and is by far the most-populous state in a pack that includes Alaska, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

Another constitutional change would get rid of the requirement that statewide officeholders live in the state capital. One would allow charities affiliated with professional sports teams to run raffles to raise money, an idea that warms the hearts of the companies that run those events and chills those of gambling foes.

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Voters will get a chance to sanctify hunting, fishing and “harvesting” wildlife by adding those to the state’s bill of rights as the preferred way of managing wildlife populations in the state.

And they’ll have a chance to earmark up to $2.5 billion of the state’s annual sales tax proceeds along with some of its revenue from motor vehicle sales for the state highway fund. This one is appealing to voters stuck in traffic and to the people who plan and build highways in Texas.

Taxpayers, Realtors, hunters and their suppliers, highway engineers and commuters, state officials who can’t afford Austin’s skyrocketing home prices, and Dallas Cowboy fans who hope to win a little something extra while they watch the game all have something to root for in this election.

In the 2013 election, all nine proposed amendments passed. In 2011, eight of 10 got through; voters turned down development bonds and a local issue affecting El Paso County. The 2009 election gave the amenders 11 wins and no losses. And 2007 was a big sweep, with 16 proposed amendments all winning voter approval.

Getting on the ballot is tantamount to winning, unless voters smell a special deal or a tax increase, so the chances for this year’s changes are pretty good.

Most Texans act like there’s not even an election.

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