Why does Texas have so many elections, and why do few people vote in them?dfwnewsa | September 18, 2022 | 0 | Midlothian , Waxahachie News
State representative. County judge. Judge for the court of criminal appeals.
The ballot goes on and on. A voter in Harris County can expect as many as 90 contests in this November’s general election for federal, state and county offices. If there are any other local elections where a voter lives, they’ll have even more.
“It’s just a lot to keep track of,” said Jace Whitaker, a 28-year-old voter in Harris County. “It’s pretty intimidating because you can research online, but there’s not really that much info about a lot of the candidates.”
And it’s not just on Nov. 8. Before the general election, voters like Whitaker research candidates for primary and runoff elections. That’s not to mention research for any municipal elections or special elections held in between.
“There’s a lot of judge electionsinHarrisCounty. I just have so much trouble digging up info about those small judge roles,” said Whitaker. “Local elections in general are kind of hard to pick up information about the candidates.”
Whitaker isn’t alone. Several readers asked in our reader survey: Why does Texas have so many elections and so many elected offices? And do the number of contests contribute to the state’s lower levels of voter turnout?
Small government via a lot of government
Texas was founded with one of the country’s most restrictive constitutions, imposing strict limits and rules on what the government can do. It’s the state’s original mistrust of government that, ironically, fuels the long list of ballot items voters face.
Putting as many offices on the ballot as possible was meant to ensure citizens had a say in their elected officials on every level of the government, said Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University.
“There was once a very progressive movement [in Texas], one that didn’t necessarily trust centralized government,” Stein said.
For example, Texas is one of a handful of states that choose judges through partisan elections, which means every judicial race has a primary election before a general election (and potentially runoff elections in between). Voters elect members of the state Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Court of Appeals, district courts, county courts and justice of the peace courts.
Runoffs in the Republican and Democratic primaries can contribute to election fatigue. Texas is one of just eight states that require primary candidates to win more than 50% of the vote before advancing to the general election. If there is no first-place finisher above 50%, the top two candidates will face off in a runoff election.
The rapid-fire timing of gubernatorial and statewide elections happening back-to-back — primaries in March, runoffs in May, certain city and school board races also in May and then the general election in November — can add to the feeling of an overwhelming amount of elections, said Joshua Blank, the director of research for the Texas Politics Project.
“Every two years in Texas, we have a highstakes election, whether for president or for governor. But if you’re an ordinary Texan, given that setup, it almost feels like there’s always a campaign going on here,” Blank said.
Plus, there’s always the possibility for more elections happening at any time. When positions become vacant from retirement or other unexpected circumstances, the Texas governor schedules a special election. The state’s status as the second-largest in the country by both area and population only confounds this challenge, as the huge number of elected officials in the state increases the likelihood of vacancies and special elections popping up in between regularly scheduled elections. A large amount of elections isn’t a problem for all Texans. Political parties often see it as an advantage.
Candidates that win “minor league” elections in cities or counties develop skills to prepare them for larger elections.
“Men and women that cut their teeth on these smaller district elections begin to develop a repertoire of campaign and fundraising skills and familiarity with the voters,” Stein said.
Low voter turnout
Voter turnout is typically low in Texas, especially in primary elections. In 2020, 25.3% of registered voters cast a ballot in either Democratic or Republican elections. In 2022, that number decreased to 17.7%.
While 60% of eligible voters hit the polls in the presidential election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the state still ranked near the bottom in the nation for voter turnout.
Experts point to a number of reasons for low voter turnout in the state — and a high number of elections is just one of them.
“It has to do with elections. It has to do with low socioeconomic status. It has to do with the history of the dominance of one party in the state, but it also has to do with a state Legislature that doesn’t make it easy to participate,” said Sean Theriault, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
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