So, I attended the League of Women Voters-Houston’s discussion on low voter turnout. It was an interesting discussion featuring Mark Jones from Rice U., Dick Murray from UH, Hector de Leon from the county, and Mustafa Tameez, a local political wiz. The problem is when you have a nonprofit group trying to discuss voter turnout, the conversation tends to become partisan, or at the very least about issues.
From the get-go, Jones gave us a lesson: People vote based on age, education, and income level. The older, more educated, and better paid one is, the likelier they are to show up at the polls. But if we are to see an increase in voter turnout, it will take an increase in Hispanic turnout.
As it stands, 55% of Hispanics are registered to vote, but in 2014, 23% of Hispanics voted, while 44% and 39% of whites and blacks, respectively, voted. Jones stated that millennials didn’t vote, and the younger generation didn’t vote either. Jones didn’t feel that there could be an increase in education or income levels any time soon, so he suggested more competitive races. But in Texas, that’s been impossible, even at the local level, such as the DAs race of 2014. So, he suggested what has been working in a large number of states: No excuse absentee voting. Pointing to a large percentage of people who receive mail-in ballots returning them to vote here in Harris County, Jones believes that it could work if offered to all voters.
Back to low turnout, Jones stated that it is consequential in Republican primaries. Since the state is Republican, all decisions of who gets elected statewide are being made in the Republican primary. He also mentioned that low turnout is consequential in local bond elections where few voters decide on millions and billions of bond dollars. He suggests perhaps requiring a threshold of voter participation to legitimize the results.
Professor Murray stated there is a pattern of lower and lower turnout. He also stated that he expects turnout to drop for the 2015 city elections, but he has not seen that kind of decrease in Presidential general elections.
He pointed to the obvious regarding presidential campaigns that they maximize resources in important (battleground) states. He also stated that we are seeing less state competition and less county competition. Much of this is based on where voters reside, and that even at the partisan level, voters seem to want to reside in areas in which they find voters that are politically similar to themselves.
Another problem Murray sees is that we have too many elections which seem to suck the oxygen out of the political process. Another is the lack of information for voters to make voting decisions about candidates.
Murray suggested that the state needs to become competitive at the presidential level. That while the state is solidly GOP, Gallup recently found that there is only a 3% difference in how Texans identify themselves. Further, he pointed to the eventual candidacy of Hillary Clinton as a motivational candidacy that will increase turnout in various groups, especially Hispanics. In 2008, Clinton won Hispanics handily in the Dem primary. Add a Hispanic Vice-Presidential candidate (Castro) and you might have the makings of a competitive Texas in November 2016, according to Murray. He also added that if the GOP Anglo candidate adds a Hispanic to their ticket, it would become ever more interesting.
de Leon put numbers to the commentary from the academics in the room. He found it important to find out who is not voting and who is voting and start from there. A few of the stats found something interesting: The less one made, the more likely one was to vote straight party. He also mentioned that low Latino turnout was concentrated in areas which were represented by a Latino/a state representative. Not sure if he was blaming officeholders, but he did state that since minority voters usually vote in Democratic precincts, that there is no way there could be voter suppression by the other side.
Mustafa Tameez, though, did some truth-telling: Rich, old white people vote, and minorities do not. He went further by talking about one actual reason that this blogger has been mentioning: People no longer believe in the political system. Further, he stated another fact: Most in the room were political junkies and that we needed to see beyond our lives and toward the lives of those not voting–actually connect with the non-voters.
Many in the room have also worked campaigns and we know what campaigns are about: Finding likely voters and targeting them multiple times. Seldom do political professionals think about the non-voting public, and it was refreshing to see a pro admit that in this kind of discussion. Frankly, I got sick of the campaign game because no one wanted to be bold and work the low propensity voters, but that’s for another post. I won’t hold my breath that this will change, though, at least as campaigns go.
Basically, Tameez stated that all of us can do more to help people feel like they are part of the system. I’ll go further and state that campaigns need to do more, too.
So, it was an interesting discussion. The Q&A, though, turned to the partisan, which isn’t hard to do when we’re talking about voting, politics, and especially issues. Professor Murray mentioned what we’ve found in polling: For Latinos, the top issues are usually Education, Jobs, Health Care, and then immigration. I’ll add, though, that immigration becomes a top issue when Republicans begin to attack immigrants and Latinos, or a Democrat makes promises or executive actions regarding the issue. And that’s how a discussion about Latino turnout becomes a partisan one because even the academics in the room agree that Latinos are mostly Democratic. I will add that Latino voters react to both sides based on how they act–on the campaign trail and while in office–too.
There wasn’t any discussion of the political back-and-forth of campaigns and how prospective voters react to the media wars. Perhaps that is where we will find something else to discuss: Messaging!!!
I’ll agree with Tameez, though, that many feel that the political system is the problem. I go back to my what one of my mentors once told a group of Latino activists: If you have a problem with the system it’s because it’s not your system. Meaning, those who developed the political system didn’t have certain people in mind.
Those words have stayed with me for over 20 years. And in those 20 years, it’s been difficult to find a solution that falls somewhere between an armed revolt that changes everything and the wholesale electoral removal of all incumbents who have made themselves comfortable in this political system that thrives on low voter turnout.
More to come, I’m sure. Thanks to the League of Women Voters-Houston for getting the ball rolling. It was great seeing a packed room for this very important discussion.