Across North Texas, early voting is underway for the May 6 municipal elections. Members of city councils and school boards will be elected. They’ll direct how to spend billions of taxpayer dollars. There’s also a host of bond and tax issues on the ballot. But if the past is any indication, most people who can vote, won’t.
Young people aren't voting
Based on past trends, fewer than one in 10 voters will weigh in on many elections in Fort Worth and Dallas. Texas cities aren’t unique in that regard, though they post some of the lowest voter turnout numbers in municipal elections. When Phil Kiesling compiled data on the most recent mayoral elections in 50 cities across the country, he found that in all but one, the majority of eligible residents didn’t cast a ballot. In many cases, the vast majority did not.
Keisling is a researcher at Portland State University and a former Oregon Secretary of State. He looked at voter turnout in the latest mayoral races in the 30 biggest cities in the country, as well as 20 other, smaller ones.
“There’s no other factor that is anywhere close to being as powerful at explaining who does vote and who doesn’t vote in one of these elections than age,” he said.
The average age of voters in municipal elections skews older than the general population, often significantly. In Fort Worth, he said, the average voter in the 2011 mayoral election was 24.6 years older than the average voting-age resident.
“Many of our cities have been revitalized in recent years by the energy of young entrepreneurs, people who open restaurants, artists and the like,” he said. “And yet when it comes to politics, basically that generation is ceding the authority and the power to their grandparents’ generation.”
Among the 50 cities Keisling studied, Dallas came out flat last for turnout in its most recent election: just 6 percent of eligible voters turned out (7 percent of registered voters). Fort Worth was just under 6.5 percent (8.5 percent registered). Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso also performed poorly. But Keisling said Texas skews younger than a lot of American cities, so it’s not surprising.
'People are creatures of habit'
On average in the cities Keisling studied, only 22 percent of eligible voters showed up for the most recent mayoral election. He said it’s a surprising number, since these are the elections where voters pick people who craft policies that affect policing and zoning, infrastructure and housing affordability.
“The study really reveals a huge gulf between politics and the impact that it can have in the community, and the perception of the importance among the citizens who live there,” he said.
Experts point to a number of ways to raise turnout, from moving the election to a different day or a different month when people are more accustomed to voting, or electing local politicians during higher turnout cycles like a presidential election. Officials could make it easier to vote by letting people pick the polling place that’s easiest to get to. When Keisling was Secretary of State, Oregon did away with polling places altogether and switched to a universal vote-by-mail system, and saw turnout jump.
But for now, in Texas, candidates running for office have to figure out to get those who do vote regularly in these local elections to vote for them.
For that, Ed Valentine said campaigns train their arsenal of tools almost exclusively on those rare, regular voters.
A lot people, said Ed Valentine, only really pay attention to national politics, so local campaigns start with voting records to target those who regularly show up for council and school board elections. Valentine is working with a host of campaigns in Dallas County in various capacities, including handling direct mail, doing data work, and helping candidates craft messaging and strategy.
“People are creatures of habit,” Valentine said. “We know who votes in local elections, so that’s our main audience, is who’s voting in local elections.”
He said their messaging has to connect with voters’ passions and simply stated. It also has to be responsive to the political issues of the day – even when they’re not strictly local issues, like the so-called bathroom bill lawmakers are considering in Austin.
Candidates use mailers, yard signs and social media to reach that audience, but Valentine said candidates only win by spending their time knocking on the doors of people who are likely to vote.
“You’ve got to connect with people,” he said. “The most important thing that a candidate can do in local elections is meet people where they are. It’s retail politics.”
Power lies among the few
In Fort Worth, campaign veteran Lee Henderson said there are some advantages to low turnout. It’s cheaper to run, for one, so candidates have to spend less time raising money. And, he said, they can interface with more voters because “there’s fewer doors to knock, so a candidate can actually go and attempt every door twice.”
Still, Henderson said most candidates would rather have more people engaged. After all, he said, many people run for office because they believe in civic participation.
For voters, he said there’s also a lot of voting power among those who do participate. In some districts where participation is as low as 2 percent, just a handful of voters can swing an election.
Henderson said there are signs that folks are more engaged this year, a possible continuation of last year’s heated election that could lead to stronger turnout in the local elections this year. Ballots are a lot more crowded than usual with city council and school board candidates.
“I would expect because of the higher interest in candidates filing that we’re going to see a boost in voter turnout this election,” he said.
Even if turnout gets a boost this year from all the candidates on the ballots in North Texas, it’s pretty likely that most voters will stay on the sidelines.