No one is expecting Houston’s voters to turn out en masse in the coming weeks, as the city elects its first new mayor in nearly a decade. Houston, everyone says, is a city where people don’t vote.
These experts point to demographics: Voters are largely older, whiter and more educated than the average American; in Houston, residents are younger, more diverse and have lower levels of education. All of this together projects a foregone conclusion that has been backed up by years and years of low-turnout data.
In 2015, 27 percent of registered voters turned out to elect Mayor Sylvester Turner to his first term. Four years later, when he won re-election, only 22 percent of Houston voters chimed in. This year, the pundits project a similar story: Maybe about one in five or one in four Houston voters will turn out to pick their favorite among the 18 mayoral candidates vying for the role.
And as a city, we have learned to accept this as a fact, and keep our expectations low.
But what if we didn’t?
“There’s about a 30 percentage-point difference for cities that hold off-cycle elections like we do, so that’s common across lots of places, especially big cities that hold their elections off-cycle,” says Melissa Marschall, a political science professor at Rice University.
That’s certainly true here. City data shows that 43 percent of registered Houstonians voted in the 2022 midterm elections. Turnout in 2020 for the presidential election nearly tripled the previous year’s municipal turnout, at 65 percent.
“If we had our local elections concurrent with midterms or presidential elections, then that would probably add 30 percentage points,” Marschall says.
Sure, she notes, there will be some voters who don’t make it all the way down the ballot — especially in Harris County where, in 2022, voters had to navigate the nation’s longest ballot. But overall, Marschall notes, “They’re going to be at the polling location anyway, voting for president and voting for Senate and other things. So they will vote.”
Changing the years during which we cast mayoral election ballots may sound like a far-fetched idea.
In 2021, Austin voters approved a city proposition to do just that. Proposition D, which was passed with the support of about two-thirds of Austin voters, limited the mayor that would be elected in 2022’s election to a two-year term, before reverting again to four-year terms. As a result, beginning in 2024, Austin will hold its mayoral elections in presidential years, rather than during midterms.
“The primary reason we put that amendment on the ballot and worked to pass it was, even comparing a midterm to a presidential, the electorate in those non-presidential years is significantly older, significantly whiter and significantly wealthier than the presidential-year electorate,” says Jim Wick, a political consultant based in Austin who was instrumental in the 2021 amendment. “So it was kind of born from the basic philosophy that we think a mayoral election should be held when the electorate that most reflects the population of the city is voting, and that’s during the presidential year.”
Ah yes, the demographics.
Houston’s demographic differences from other cities with higher voter engagement — like Austin — aren’t simply an excuse for low turnout; there’s a well-proven and very strong correlation between someone’s check-your-box factors like age, ethnicity and educational attainment and the rate at which they vote.
“Last year, when governorship was on the ballot, Harris County had roughly a 43 percent turnout. Travis County, which is home to Austin, had 52 percent turnout,” says Renée Cross, senior executive director and researcher at the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. That, she says, is because “Austin has higher education levels, higher income levels and a whiter population.”
Cross says that as a political scientist. Someone who has spent years studying these trends. And I respect her expertise. Cross will be the first to note that there’s a difference between correlations and causations, which means just because older, whiter, wealthier people tend to vote more often does not mean they vote more often because they are older, whiter and wealthier.
We do not have to accept Houston’s low voter turnout as a foregone conclusion simply because we are a beautifully diverse and dynamically young city. In fact, I refuse to accept that. And you should, too.
Polls are open
It is, of course, too late to register to vote in Texas. But it’s certainly not too late to get out and vote if you are registered.
Election season is only just beginning. And turnout appears to be on track — so far, at least — to inspire some hope in this city where rates of optimism have markedly dipped in recent years. On Monday evening, as my own optimism dipped while watching the Astros kiss their World Series bid goodbye, I heard a ping in my inbox: The Harris County Clerk’s Office Election Department sent the first of many daily turnout updates at the end of the first day of early voting. It carried hope.
According to the clerk’s count, about 12,700 people voted in person on Monday. That’s roughly a 50 percent increase over the first day of early voting in 2019’s mayoral election, when about 8,000 people voted. The number climbed even higher on Tuesday, to about 14,400 according to the clerk’s office — also a roughly 50 percent increase over 2019, when about 9,400 people voted.
That’s promising. But it’s important to note that even if we exceeded 2019’s turnout by 50 percent through Election Day on Nov. 7, Houston would still have far fewer voters for its next mayor than it sees during even-year elections.
If we want the electorate that selects our mayor to better reflect the actual makeup of the communities we call home, we should consider doing what Austin did. And while changing government isn’t always straightforward and easy, the roadmap Wick and his companions used in Austin is relatively achievable.
In fact, it’s a process that’s taken place in Houston just this year, when the “Fair for Houston” campaign collected more than 23,000 signatures demanding that the city of Houston have more proportional representation on the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC). In Houston, if a petition garners signatures from 20,000 registered voters, the issue can be added to the November election as a charter amendment. You’ll see the H-GAC item on your ballot at Proposition B.
“Houston could do it,” says Wick. He doesn’t stop at Houston either; both San Antonio and Dallas held their mayoral elections this May, during an off-cycle, out-of-season election.
“This is something I would like to see happen in Houston and in Dallas and San Antonio,” he says. “Any city would be better served by undertaking reforms that increase voting.”
Voting, I’ve always thought, is an expression of hope. So why do we agree in this city to keep our hopes and expectations low when it comes to voter turnout?
We owe it to ourselves — and to this crazy, messy, wonderful city — to set our hopes higher.