Why Bother: Voter Turnout Up and Down, Mostly Down
This story was reported for the “Why Bother” series in collaboration with KLRU and The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life. Find more at whybothertexas.org
In just 50 days voters will choose the next president. For the next six weeks KUT will explore the causes and proposed solutions of what some have called a crisis of civic disengagement. Today, a look at historical trends.
“Our push right now is to get everything tested, get the ballot locked down, make sure everything is correct, and then we make the big push to get everything out of the door 45 days in advance,” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk, who is also the elections administrator.
Down the hall from DeBeauvoir’s office there’s a big room where they test different setups for voting booths. A team of election workers is taking down the booths to try a different setup. DeBeauvoir says a lot of planning goes into setting up each voting location for Election Day.
“We don’t want people bumping into each other when they come into the polling place as they exit,” she said. “So we try to have one entrance and a separate exit, so that they are coming in and going out. So, a nice flow throughout the building.”
The setup is tailor-made for each polling place. DeBeauvoir’s job is to make sure everything runs smoothly on Election Day.
With the amount of detail and effort that goes into elections, you might think that that effort directly influences turn out. But Mark Littlefield, a campaign consultant in Austin, says that’s not the case.
“There are about 460,000 registered voters here inside the city of Austin,” Littlefield said. “And a likely voter is someone who has voted in one of the last three elections or so. We have about 79,000 likely voters in a City Council election. If it is a municipal election where there is no hot mayor’s race, you are looking at turnout of 30,000, about 8 percent.”
November elections are different; they have a higher turnout, especially when there’s a presidential race on the ballot. Littlefield says that’s because many groups are mobilized to get people registered to vote, and newly registered voters tend to turn out in November. But going back to that 8 percent voter turnout, that is more of the norm. And Austin Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole says it is a really disheartening number.
“Voter turnout in Travis County is shockingly low given the amount of other civic engagement that we see in the community,” Cole said.
Austinites are known for getting involved. The community often rallies behind the needs of others. Many people are politically active, from the young to the old. But that hasn’t translated into voter turnout. Littlefield says he’s actually seen the opposite effect.
“Every time I think that we’ve hit the floor and we can’t go any lower, I’m shocked by turn out in the next May election,” he said.
DeBeauvoir doesn’t worry as much about it. “As elections administrators I don’t think we are really responsible for turnout,” she said. “That’s the job of the campaigns.”
DeBeauvoir and her team are making sure the ballots are ready, the booths are functional, and voters have enough parking. She is also kicking off a program so that people affected by redistricting can vote at any location on Election Day.
Groups are rallying and registering voters left and right. If the past two presidential elections are any guide, more than 60 percent of registered voters will show up. But what happens the next time we elect our local officials is probably a different story.
Join us, the Strauss Institute for Civic Life and KLRU, Tuesday October 2 for “Why Bother: Voices of a New Generation” – a public dialogue among young Texans — those who are engaged and those who aren’t — about the causes of low civic participation in central Texas and how to boost it. Find details here.