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How Do People Decide To Become Voters?


This story is part of A Nation Engaged, a collaborative project between NPR and its member stations. This week's question: "Does my vote matter?

As politicians, pundits and reporters talk about how voters are making their decisions, the issues that motivate them, which candidates excite them. But what about those people who might be staying home in November?

UT-Arlington political scientist Rebecca Deen says deciding whether to vote often involves some pretty complicated mental math. First, there’s the question of whether you think your vote will be meaningful.

“If you think that there’s a chance that your candidate might win, then that’s going to increase the likelihood,” Deen says.

And that factor, she says, is multiplied by excitement. How pumped will you be if your guy or gal wins? Or how much do you want the other candidate do lose? That’s the psychological piece.

“But then there’s this institutional piece, and that’s the cost of elections,” Deen says.

Those costs can be a lot of things – are you registered to vote? Do you have the right identification? Do you have time to get to the polls between work and making dinner tonight?

“So it’s the psychological piece minus the costs,” Deen says.

Just after the lunch rush in the food court at Le Gran Plaza Mall in Fort Worth, Jeannette Quirarte is manning the register at Restaurant Jalisco. This 24-year-old says she’s registered to vote, but hasn’t ever voted before. This year, she says she’s thinking about voting. She’d for Hillary Clinton. Really, she wants to vote against Donald Trump.

“I mean, I’m Hispanic, you know,” she says. She tends to like conservatives, but when she hears Trump’s policy proposals and rhetoric, she says “it’s nothing we support, you know.”

Quirarte says in some earlier elections, she thought about voting, but didn’t have her registration card or wasn’t familiar with the candidates.

“Sometimes you get busy,” she says. Or, “you forget to pay attention to what is going on, you know.”

For the majority of Texans, most of the time – the answer seems to be: It’s not worth it. The last time more than 60 percent of registered voters turned out to vote was 1992. In non-presidential elections, the numbers are worse. Elaine Wiant from the Texas League of Women Voters says it’s partly because most Texas elections are pretty one-sided.

“The states with the highest turnout, have competitive races,” Wiant says. “The states that have very low voter turnout – and Texas is number one at that – don’t have competitive races.”

Republicans tend to far outshine Democrats in Texas elections. In 2012, Obama lost the state by more than a million votes, and by just under a million four years earlier. Republicans in the state’s legislature have also drawn electoral maps that make it difficult to swing most districts from one party to the other.

“That makes it hard to convince people that it matters if they vote,” Wiant says.

Daniel Garza from the Libre Initiative says engagement is a huge factor. His group is working to bring more Latinos into the conservative fold. In a state that already has low turnout, Garza says Latinos in Texas turn out the least.

“There’s 9.5 million Hispanics, out of 28 million total residents,” Garza says. “Unfortunately, a little bit under half of them are registered to vote. And under 40 percent of them turn out to vote.”

The state’s Latino population is young, Garza points out, and young people – often starting careers and families -- tend to vote less reliably. For some, he says, more immediate economic concerns may make politics seem abstract. Mostly, though, he blames both parties for failing to reach out consistently and engage Latinos.

“It is up to the candidate, it is up to the party, and it is up to organizations like ours to impress upon the Latino community the value, the weight of their vote, and what it does to change policy outcomes,” Garza says.

“I think people get tired of only seeing politicians and the political process in action when there’s an election,” says Joe Chavez, who helped found the left-leaning North Texas Young Latino Leaders.

Chavez wants the Latino community to produce more candidates for office. That, he says, would produce a virtuous cycle that has Latino leaders already tapped into the community, and a community that will pay closer attention to elections and feel more empowered.

“That will lead, I believe, to more qualified, good representatives on various levels for the Hispanic community to be proud of. And also, I believe, that will encourage in particular the Hispanic community to become involved and stay involved,” Chavez says.

Some of the most involved voters in Texas are in San Antonio this week for the Texas Democratic Party convention – and you can bet they’ll also be talking about how to get more people out to vote this fall.

Today at noon on Think, we’ll delve deeper into what gets people out to the polls with a panel of North Texas political organizers.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.