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Analysis: When Texans aren’t engaged, Texans don’t vote

If you want Texans to vote, you have to get their attention, to give them something engaging to consider. There's a constitutional amendment election starting next week. Interested?

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Texas is about to have one of its periodic and deeply disappointing tests of civic engagement — a November election built around constitutional amendments and not around warring political personalities.

Conflict and advertising and the tons of news coverage generated by candidates and campaigns drive turnout. It’s easy to chart: More Texans vote in presidential years than in gubernatorial years, partly because of the relative power of those offices but also because of the overwhelming focus on national campaigns. In last year’s presidential election, more than 8.9 million Texans voted. In the 2014 race for governor between Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis, 4.7 million voted.

In between those two elections, fewer than 1.6 million Texans turned out for a constitutional amendment election. That one actually had a couple of issues of interest to ordinary voters, including an attempt to lower property taxes for homeowners, a plan to increase state spending on highways and transportation by up to $5 billion and an end to the requirement that statewide elected officials live in the state capital. Each of the seven proposals on that ballot passed easily.

Most of the state's voters slept through it.

The 2013 election was a yawner, attracting only 1.1 million voters. Everything passed, including an amendment legalizing reverse mortgages in Texas.

2011? Only 690,052 Texans showed up — of the 12.8 million who were registered to vote at the time — to vote on 10 amendments. They voted three of them down, proving that the few who bothered weren’t there to simply smile and nod. Still, the relatively local and technical measures on that ballot failed to attract a crowd.

The pattern, though, is that constitutional amendment elections draw small crowds of mostly agreeable voters. In 2009, just over 1 million Texans approved 11 amendments. In 2007, about the same number of voters okayed each of the 16 amendments before them.

You see how this goes.

This year’s line-up is not exactly front-page news; most of the scant attention the election has attracted comes from a proposal to ease restrictions on borrowing against home equity.

Here’s a decidedly non-scientific way to test voters’ interest: Have you heard people talking about it? At this time a year ago, did you hear people talking about the presidential election?

Early voting begins Monday. Election Day is Nov. 7. There are seven proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution that would change state law for sports raffles, savings contests run by financial institutions, the tenure of state appointees who haven’t been replaced and so on. Here’s a list, along with an analysis or two done by the state.

It’s an election where each vote is fractionally more important than normal: With fewer voters showing up, each vote counts for more. And changes to the constitution are more permanent — most of the time — than the changes in officeholders that attract more voters to most other elections.

Texans, like voters in most places, have proved they’re more interested in deciding which people will govern than on the sometimes-narrow policies presented in these off-year elections.

You can’t blame the low turnouts for elections like this one on partisan redistricting, though ballot access laws that arguably make it more difficult to vote certainly don’t help.

You can blame the legislators who schedule these elections, often on dates when low turnout is all but assured — when contests that might get the kind of attention and debate that attracts widespread interest, and with it, citizens who want to register their views.

You can always blame voters, since turnout is a measure of how many people came to the polls to register their opinions. But they’re capable of getting interested. It’s been a long time now, but the Texas Lottery was approved in a constitutional amendment election that drew almost 2.1 million voters — at a time when there were only 7.8 million registered voters in the state. More recently, Texas voters approved a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2005 (a provision later voided by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling). The turnout for that 2005 vote topped 2.2 million.

Civic engagement is, after all, about engagement. Boring or narrow issues don’t attract voters. But if you interest them, they will come.

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