Analysis: In Texas elections, there’s power in small numbers
If you think Texas has lousy election turnout, you're right. But if you think the regular numbers are small, just wait and see what happens in the coming runoffs and special elections.
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In the last presidential election — normally the high-water mark for turnout in any state — 9.0 million Texans voted, out of the 15.1 million who were registered to vote at that time. That’s just a touch under 60 percent.
You already know that voter turnout in Texas is, according to a recent report, worse than almost any place else. “Almost” means Hawaii. And if turnout is bad in big and noisy elections for president, imagine the numbers just ahead in the 34 party primary election runoffs on May 22 — or worse, in the just-called June 30 special election to replace Corpus Christi Republican Blake Farenthold in Congress.
The statewide average for 2016 masks wide variations between places with decent turnout and places where turnout is truly awful.
In the state’s 3rd Congressional District, where U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Richardson, is serving out his last term before retirement, the 2016 turnout was 67.4 percent.
In the 34th Congressional District represented by U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, turnout that year was 49.12 percent.
In Johnson’s district, 324,306 people voted in 2016, according to the Texas Legislative Council. In Vela’s district, 174,830 voted.
The numbers of registered voters in each district vary even more widely, for a couple of reasons. It’s been a while since the Legislature looked at the census numbers and divided the state into 36 congressional districts that each had the same number of people in them. Second, even with equal populations, the number of adults varies by district, the number of adult citizens varies, and the number of eligible voters who actually register to vote and then turn out varies.
In the 21st Congressional District where U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, currently serves, there were 542,873 registered voters in 2016 — more than twice as many as there were in CD-33, represented by U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth.
Despite the variations, those are all numbers from a Texas version of a high-turnout election — one where only two out of every five registered voters stayed home.
In election years without potential presidents at the top of the ticket, the numbers are far worse — and the opportunities for power moves by small groups of activists are at their highest.
When fewer people vote, it takes fewer people to swing an election from one candidate to another. Parties protect themselves from that with the kinds of redistricting maps currently in place in Texas — where the overwhelming majority of districts are designed for one major party or the other. That current map favors many more Republicans than Democrats but leaves very few federal and state legislative choices in the hands of general election voters.
Those maps were drawn with particular attention to voter turnout. The law requires them to be equal in size, but doesn’t say how many adults, how many citizens or how many potential voters each must have. In one — the 23rd Congressional District — lawyers suing the state over its district maps contend the Legislature replaced an area mainly made up of Hispanic voters with a roughly equal area of non-voting Hispanics. In terms of population and demographics, nothing changed. But a group of largely Democratic voters was replaced with non-voters, a change that favors Republican candidates.
If a tweak like that matters in a big general election, little things make big differences in low-turnout affairs like the coming runoffs or, for that matter, the primaries held last month.
Where the November 2016 election attracted 9 million Texas voters, the 2018 Democratic and Republican primaries attracted only 2.6 million.
Take a look at that Farenthold seat. In 2016, 236,930 voted in the November general election in that congressional district. Last month, the corresponding number was 65,368, including 44,108 in the Republican primary and 21,260 in the Democratic primary. Two of the six Republicans and two of the four Democrats who competed in the first round are back in runoffs, where the turnout is expected to be even lower and — here’s the point — where a relatively small number of people will determine the winners.
Each voter in a small-turnout district is proportionately more powerful than each voter in a high-turnout district. And the voters who show up for runoffs and special elections have the most clout of all.
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