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"Voter Turnout:" A Commentary

By Jennifer Nagorka, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX – Saturday's Dallas election was something to celebrate. The two reasons for jubilation were the relatively high voter turnout - 132,405 people, or almost 22% of registered voters, cast ballots. And they voted overwhelmingly for the massive school bond issue.

In many developed countries, a 22% voter turnout would be a cause for alarm, not pride. But in Texas, only presidential elections routinely turn out more than 50% of registered voters. In last fall's special state Constitutional election, only seven percent of registered voters went to the polls. Even with the terrorist attacks in September, which many people say were an attack on our democracy, few Texans exercised their democratic duty to vote.

Now, it's true that constitutional elections are usually as exciting as watching paint dry. The recent Dallas race, by contrast, benefited from involving lively personalities - Laura Miller probably qualifies as a local celebrity - and having big money at stake. That encouraged more news coverage, and that probably generated more voter interest. The campaign was also mercifully short, so people could learn what they needed to about the candidates and issues without growing heartily sick of them.

But there's another reason the turnout was high - and this is the other reason to celebrate. Residents of the Dallas Independent School District needed to decide on a $1.3 billion bond package. Although there hadn't been much opposition to the package, it also hasn't been that long since Bill Rojas huffed out of the superintendent's office and Yvonne Gonzales vacated her federal prison cell. Plus, the school board still has trouble abiding by the Texas Open Meetings Act, as a judge recently ruled.

And yet, Dallas voters approved the bond package. It didn't just win; it won by a landslide. 78% of those who voted agreed to raise their own taxes to give Dallas children decent school buildings. That's a mandate, not the sort of wobbly, just-barely-majority election result that hobbles the U.S. and Texas Senates. Dallas voters, whether they had children in district schools or not, turned out in record numbers to say, "Get the dirt flying." That unified voice is cause for joy.

The trick will be finding a way to keep Dallas residents engaged - not just until the mayoral runoff, but for the long term. A 22% voter turnout should become the minimum acceptable. From those energized voters, city officials should cultivate new neighborhood leaders, new candidates for city boards and commissions, and additional volunteers for school and community groups. Volunteers may not be able to actually build new schools, but they can help rebuild the neighborhoods around schools.

It isn't just smooth roads and new schools that make a city livable. It's a sense of safety, a sense of place, and a sense of connection. On Saturday, we connected. Now we need to figure out how to stay connected.