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Why does Texas have so many elections, and why do few people vote in them?

By Emma Williams, The Texas Tribune

Why does Texas have so many elections, and why do few people vote in them?” 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.

The Texas Tribune is answering reader questions ahead of the midterms about elections and the issues Texans are voting on. Thanks to readers like Sarah F., Edson S. and Jay J. for asking us why there are so many elections in Texas, and if that contributes to the state’s low voter turnout. For the latest news and information on elections, sign up for our free daily newsletter. You can also get election updates over text message by texting “hello” to 512-967-6919.

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 elections in Harris County. 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 high-stakes 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.

Texas has the 13th highest poverty rate in the United States, with 13% of residents living in poverty. Low socioeconomic status can be linked to low voter turnout, according to Theriault.

“When you have high incomes, you can start thinking about things other than having a roof over your head, clothing on your body and food on your table. When you have higher-income people, they just have the luxury of starting to think about things other than their basic needs,” Theriault said.

Uncompetitive elections also make voters feel like their vote matters less, which can discourage them from voting. Republicans have retained control of most of the Texas government since the 1990s.

“If you don’t have competition at the statewide level, then what inducement is there for the marginal voter to still listen and pay attention and cast votes?” Theriault asked.

Texas has some of the country’s strictest restrictions on voting, including a law passed in 2021 that limited what voting initiatives local counties could undertake. The law targeted several initiatives that Harris County used in 2020 to help voters keep social distance during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic. The legislation made it a felony for local election officials to distribute mail-in ballots to voters that did not specifically ask for them, even if voters qualify.

“It impacts older voters, it impacts disabled voters and it impacts rural voters,” said Joyce LeBombard, president of the League of Women Voters Texas. “It just has consequences that I don’t think everybody realizes.”

The law also allows poll watchers to move freely throughout elections and observe every part of the elections process, excluding only what happens in the voting booth.

“It can create an intimidating environment for voters, especially if you’re new to voting and you’re already unsure about how to vote,” LeBombard said. “It could just be very intimidating to ask for the help that you might need.”Though authors of the bill have said it is meant to increase the security of elections, there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Texas. The offices of Sen. Bryan Hughes and Rep. Andrew Murr, two lead authors on the 2021 legislation, did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

What do other states do?

States including Georgia, Florida, Arkansas and Arizona have passed laws that restrict access to voting since the 2020 presidential election. But some states have attempted to make voting easier. California has passed a number of voting laws over the past decade, and in the years since the 2020 elections. Voter turnout of eligible voters in the Golden State has increased by about 15% from 2012 to 2020.

“In the last 10 years, there hasn’t been a pro-turnout reform that California has not adopted.” said Eric McGhee, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. “I honestly can’t think of one that they’ve left on the table — they’ve done just about everything.”

Some of the voter access initiatives in California include:

  • Making mail-in ballots available to everyone, with no reason required
  • Introducing online voter registration
  • Adding automatic voter registration at the DMV
  • Giving 16- and 17-year-olds the ability to pre-register to vote
  • Aligning less popular local elections with federal elections — so voters are electing their mayor at the same time as they are voting on the U.S. president

Even so, California ranked just 24th in the nation for voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election, with a 68.5% turnout rate of eligible voters. Other states like Washington, Maine, Colorado and Minnesota earned spots in the 75% to 80% range for voter turnout. The discrepancy could be due to the states with high turnout having smaller, more educated and wealthier populations. No matter what the voting laws, those populations tend to have higher rates of voter turnout.

Some of these changes could increase turnout in Texas, said Stein, the political scientist at Rice University. But many may not help as much as they do in other states.

Combining local elections with federal elections may not actually make a difference. Ballots might become too long for voters, leaving many to turn in incomplete ballots.This consequence could be remedied if the state expanded mail-in voting. With more time, voters could research every candidate on the ballot and actually complete it, Stein said.

But increasing access to mail-in voting, too, could have unintended consequences — because it exposes voters to a lack of privacy from their immediate household. Stein said that many voters may face pressure from family members, coworkers or other people to vote a certain way that they wouldn’t experience if voting in a traditional polling place.

“It has a downside. Mail-in voting isn’t really a secret ballot,” Stein said.

What can the average voter do?

Texas isn’t likely to pass any initiatives to decrease barriers to the polls in its next legislative session, which is in 2023 and after the upcoming midterms. But advocates say the average Texan can still make an impact on the state’s voter turnout.

Any Texan who is above the age of 18 and a U.S. citizen can become a deputy registrar. Deputy registrars distribute voter registration forms and can register other residents.

These Texans could also become election workers. Election workers are responsible for making sure Election Day runs smoothly — they help voters with disabilities, language barriers or confusion for any reason to cast their ballots.

If those things aren’t for you, LeBombard, of the League of Women Voters Texas, says the key to voter turnout is in conversation.

“We’ve gotten away from this idea of talking to people about elections because people want to turn it into politics,” LeBombard said. “But you don’t have to talk about politics if you want to talk about voting.”

Texans can encourage voting with family members, coworkers and anyone in between. Rather than trying to push for a certain candidate, Texans can help each other find a strategy to vote.

If a friend says they won’t vote because they don’t know what’s on the ballot, LeBombard says Texans should point them to a voter’s guide. If they say they can’t vote because they have to care for their children, encourage them to bring their children with them or help them find child care.

“It’s having those conversations with the people that you know and finding out if they are voting, not how they’re going to vote,” LeBombard said. “That’s how we’re going to really increase voter turnout. When you go to the poll, bring a friend. Bring five friends.”

This story is part of a project called Democracy Day, in which newsrooms across the country are shining a light on threats to democracy and what action is needed to protect it.

Disclosure: Rice University and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters 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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