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Why Is Voter Turnout So Low In Texas?

(Erik Hersman via Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

In recent years, voter turnout in Texas has been...well, let’s just say not everything <i> </i>is bigger here.

State voter turnout has been below the national average for the past few decades, regularly falling below 50%.

All this week, public radio stations across Texas are answering your election questions, as part of our #TXDecides reporting series. Steven Kellman of Antonio wanted to know why turnout is so consistently low in Texas.

"Why do most Texans eligible to vote not bother to cast a ballot?" he asks.

Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He's a very engaged voter: he can rattle off voting stats like he’s a government computer and cite anecdotes about, you know, that time at the constitutional convention when Benjamin Franklin was asked whether a monarchy or a republic had been formed.

"A Republic, if you can keep it," Franklin is said to have replied.

Kellman worries about the future of that republic; our ability to "keep it", in essence.

"Representative Democracy requires active engagement of its citizens," he says. "If that does not occur, then it disintegrates into an Oligarchy, or a Plutocracy, or a Monarchy, and I don't think that that is what we really want."

So, why don't most Texans vote?

At a West Texas bar the night of the last presidential debate, artist John Bernhard’s shooting a game of pool, and not paying attention to the T.V. That’s because he’s not voting this year for the first time.

"I voted for everybody, I even voted for George Bush, I voted for Bill Clinton, I voted for right, left, whatever," he says. "But this time, I am very, very upset, because there is no choice."

Bernhard is a Houstonian, originally from Switzerland. He says lots of people vote there, and he does care about voting.

"It's the most important thing that we can do, that we have in this country," he says. "We have to go vote and express ourselves."

But this year, he’s just too disgusted with both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. He says in Texas, a red state that’s probably going to go for Trump, he doesn’t think his vote matters anyways.

"If I was in another state, maybe I would look at it differently, but right now, I want to make a stand."

Rice University professor and political science fellow Mark Jones says there’s actually something to that.

"The outcome is preordained in most cases," he says.

"In most counties, in most legislative districts, we know who's going to win in November, and that's one less incentive for people to turn out to vote."

It's tempting to stop there - to say “well, I guess Texans just don’t care or just feel let down by the system.” But there’s more to it than psychology.

Research shows there are a lot of Texans who are less likely to vote, just based on their life circumstances and who they are. Texas has more younger, poorer, less well-educated and Latino people than most other states, and then there are the legal obstacles like the Voter ID law that sometimes come into play.

"All of those factors combine to make a sociodemographic or socioeconomic context in which voting is almost pre-destined to be low," Jones says.

He says those external factors, as you might call them, combine with those internal feelings of disillusionment to keep Texas voter turnout steadily low.

But what about Steven Kellman’s broader question? What does this all mean for the future of Democracy? Are we really heading toward a future where just a few Texans make decisions for the entire state?

Not quite.

According to Professor Jones, while voter turnout has been dropping, it's leveled off over the past couple of decades, and even saw a small uptick with the election of President Obama in 2008.

"So I'd say more than anything else, we're in a holding pattern with a sub-optimal level of turnout," he says.

While turnout is likely to stay relatively low, individual campaigns and candidates can have some effect, and this year's election is looking to be an interesting case study.

You might think people would be less likely to cast a ballot since Clinton and Trump are the least-liked candidates in modern political history. Despite that fact, the Pew Research Center recently found that overall interest in this election is higher than it’s been since the early ‘90’s, and Texas has a record number of registered voters this year.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.