Why Don't Texans Vote?
SAN ANTONIO, Texas With the clock ticking down to Election Day, attack ads fill the airwaves, desperate candidates take to the stump and political pundits produce a plethora of predictions. And guess who doesn’t care? The non-voter.
They are opting out of the process. And year after year, Texas has one poorest voter turnouts in the nation.
Last August a Houston focus group was put together to ask a simple question: “What could make you decide to vote in an election?”
The group was made up of moderate- to lower-income men and women from the diverse community in southwest Harris County. And the discussion showed there just wasn’t much interest in voting.
“And so there’s nothing -- there’s not an issue, there’s nothing that will make you vote?"
"I mean I’m concerned about it -- but I feel my vote, it won’t matter.”
Fred Lewis is the director of Texans Together, which organized the focus group. He said this is typical of many of the non-voters he deals with.
“What these folks are telling us is that they lack faith that their vote will make a difference in their lives," Lewis said. "That they weren’t very informed about what the issues were, they basically didn’t think it would make any difference if they voted.”
But it does. And the challenge for Lewis and other community activists is to help the non-voters make that connection: When they don’t show up on Election Day, they get short-changed when politicians decide where to spend public dollars.
“If Latinos and other historically other disengaged people do not vote, our state is not going to make the investments in their education and future that we need and they need to have a future. That’s the problem," Lewis said.
Texas is consistently in the bottom five states in the nation when it comes to voter turnout. In the 2010 midterm elections, nationally the voter turnout was 41 percent -- in Texas it was 32 percent. And Latino voting habits are even weaker -- in 2008 only Hispanics counted for 40 percent of eligible voters in Texas but counted for only 12 percent of the actual votes cast.
Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said it’s his mission to change that.
“It’s gotta reach a point where Hispanics believe that this is a normal thing to do, that you get up on Election Day, or during early voting, because you just gotta do it," Hinojosa said.
When Texans do vote it’s mainly for Republicans. No Democrat has won a statewide office since 1994. And Hinojosa is motivated to turn more Hispanics into voters because they are likely to vote Democrat.
However, Walter Wilson, political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said both parties are to blame for citizens who are cynical about voting.
He says Democrats want the votes of the working class but they don’t want to share with them political influence.
“So Democratic candidates here in Texas, if they have very large Hispanic population in their district, I think they are often taken for granted. And that means they are not mobilized at election time," Wilson said.
And this is aggravated by how congressional districts are drawn in the state. The Hispanic population is packed into isolated districts, or so diluted in other districts that their needs are ignored by representatives. Together this creates an overall sense of political helplessness, even though Hispanics are the majority population in the region.
So Hispanics and other minority groups have been organizing this election season to make sure their voices cannot be ignored.
At Sparky’s, a gay bar in San Antonio, the local Stonewall Democrats have been working since Labor Day trying to beef up voter participation.
Genie Minor, a deputized voter registrar, is asking bar patrons if they are registered to vote and if they’ll sign a pledge to vote.
"When we do voter registration we are not advocating any party or candidate, we just want them to register and vote, because it’s important to have every voice heard," Minor said.
The experts say this is what it takes to turn around jaded non-voters: grassroots community activism, and maintaining it year round. They say democracy doesn’t just happen on Election Day.