Figuring Out Why Texas Voter Turnout Is Still Terrible

It was hard to tell from the breathless news coverage of Ted Cruz's hanging on to win the Texas primary and stay in the race with Republican front-runner Donald Trump last week, but the Lone Star State had yet another election with terrible voter turnout. Despite Texas Republicans casting a record number of votes — more than 2.8 million — low turnout from Democrats and the state's dismal recent turnout history ensured that only Louisiana had a lower participation rate among voting age residents out of all the states that had participated in nominating contests as of Monday night.

Just 21.5 percent of voting-aged Texans showed up last Tuesday, just more than the 17.3 percent that showed up in Louisiana. That's despite a home-state candidate (Cruz), a candidate who packed the American Airlines Center on a Monday night and Fort Worth Convention Center during the middle of a workday (Trump) and a candidate who's now won two dominating victories in the state in three elections (Hillary Clinton) all being in the race. Texas having an uncharacteristically early, and influential, primary didn't matter either.

In a Tuesday article in the Texas Tribune, Rice University political science professor Mark Jones blames the low number of people showing up to decide their party's nominees on demographics.

“Our population tends to be younger, more Latino and less well-educated than the population in [northern states],” Jones told the Tribune. “And we know that age, ethnicity and income are correlated with your propensity to vote.”

Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a political scientist at the University of Texas, says the problem isn't that simple. While it is true that the three groups Jones mentions do turn out in lower numbers, Texas also has a problem, she says, with voters being disinterested in the political process because the state doesn't have competitive top-line races.

"Texas isn't really a competitive state," she says. "So we don't have that culture of voting that you have in swing states where you're always in the political eye. Texas doesn't have that. It doesn't have this exciting national political scene. On top of that, at least for the Democrats this year, you didn't have that magic that you had with Barack Obama. Yes, Bernie Sanders is firing up a certain group of folks, but nothing like what Obama did in 2008."

Unless they are given a strong reason to show up, as was done by President Obama, young people just won't vote, Soto says, because they have better things to do. Young people and those who are less educated, she says, have less money, so they have less time to go vote as well.

Latinos, according to Soto, often lack the generational political loyalties that cause people to do things like vote in primaries. That being said, because Texas currently has zero net immigration from Mexico, that lagging interest in voting might eventually catch up to itself, she says. If and when that happens, Soto opines, it won't mean Texas makes the long-awaited turn to being blue, or at least purple, that has been viewed by many as demographic destiny.

"I'm cautious to equate the demographic shift in Texas with it automatically turning blue," she says. "I mean, it will, Latinos are Democrats for the most part or independents, but that assumes Republicans stay as conservative as they are. Remember George W. Bush's second gubernatorial election — he got 49 percent [of the Latino vote]."

Soto says we shouldn't expect anything different for this fall's general election, unless Latinos are so fired up about voting against Donald Trump that they show up to the polls en masse. 

Even that, she says, wouldn't stop deep red Texas from getting chalked up in the Republican column.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young