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Analysis: The 3% of Texans deciding who governs the other 97%

By Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune

Analysis: The 3% of Texans deciding who governs the other 97%” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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In a perfect version of our democracy, all of the eligible adults would be registered to vote and then would vote. Any candidate with the support of more voters would take office and represent everybody who voted, including the people who voted for another candidate.

It’s not perfect, though, is it?

Not all of the adults who are eligible to vote are registered. Not all of the registered voters vote, and fewer of them vote in party primaries than in November general elections.

What that means is that a few people pick the nominees of the two major parties. And in a state with Texas’ combination of political maps drawn by partisans and a Republican Party that hasn’t lost a statewide election in more than a quarter of a century, those primary voters are choosing most of our officeholders in state government and in the Texas congressional delegation.

The political maps rig most of the districts in the congressional delegation, state House and Senate and State Board of Education so that only a Democrat or only a Republican can win. Few are competitive. Republicans, who draw the maps, draw more districts to Republican advantage. And the result is that a Republican primary election winner is probably going to win in November. Though they have fewer seats to win, the same goes for Democrats.

The numbers are sobering.

According to the Texas secretary of state, 17.1 million Texans are registered to vote. The U.S. Census Bureau says there are 29.1 million people in Texas and that 21.7 million of them are 18 years old or older.

Even if all of the adults in the state were eligible to vote, and voted, about a quarter of the population is too young to cast ballots. They have no alternative but to live with the elected officials chosen by their elders.

But a lot of those elders choose to be governed like the kids.

Even a “big” primary turnout in Texas is feeble. In 2020, a year when voters were motivated by a hard-fought presidential race, only a quarter of the registered voters showed up for either the Democratic or Republican primary. Most of us — 74.5% — didn’t vote.

The election before that one was noisy and competitive, too, but it didn’t have a national race to juice voter interest. It did have U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz trying to win reelection in the face of a challenge from then-U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and turnout wasn’t bad — by Texas standards — for an off-year election.

Texas standards are anemic. In the 2018 primaries, 82.8% of voters stayed home. In the Republican primary that year, 1.5 million people voted in the U.S. Senate races, and it took only 774,787 to secure the nomination. Cruz got more than that, but that’s all he needed.

Each of those Republican voters had more power than they would have had with a higher turnout. The idea here is simple: If only one person votes, that vote chooses a candidate. But if 100 people vote, it takes 51 people to pick a candidate.

Fewer voters equals more clout.

Fast forward to this year, a classic setup for a low-turnout primary. Several of the races have more than one candidate. Races at the top of the ticket tend to get more attention. The candidates can raise more money, run more ads, go to more events and attract more interest from voters.

But the governor’s races in the two major parties this year are dominated by the best-known candidates. National and international political news is competing for that attention. Election day is next Tuesday, and early voting isn’t over yet. But through Wednesday, Feb. 23, a reported 93.5% of Texas voters had not voted.

In the Republican primary, turnout was at 4%; on the Democratic side, it was a weak 2.4%. On that day, a candidate could have won a Republican nomination with support from a measly 2.1% of voters; a Democrat would’ve needed just 1.5%.

The rest of us would be governed by the winners of that meager civic engagement. Democrats haven’t won a statewide election since 1994. Until they break that streak, winning a GOP primary is tantamount to winning statewide office. And the congressional, legislative and SBOE candidates can count on those political maps to ensure wins for most candidates in November general elections. Winning the primary is almost everything.

On the other hand, those few voters who do turn out do pretty well for themselves, choosing our representatives while the rest of us snooze.

Disclosure: Texas Secretary of State has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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