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In El Paso, apathy, alienation and discontent with candidates drives low voter turnout

By Uriel J. García, The Texas Tribune

In El Paso, apathy, alienation and discontent with candidates drives low voter turnout” 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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EL PASO — On the sunny morning of Texas’ March primaries, Jorge Trujillo, 73, a retired packing factory salesperson, stood outside a senior center here canvassing for Homer Reza, a Democratic candidate for the Texas House.

A white sheet of paper taped to the community center’s door tallied the day’s voters: Only 60 people had cast a ballot by noon.

“I think people have given up on politics,” Trujillo said, standing in the parking lot with his wife, Sylvia. “Seeing all this division, they simply don’t care anymore.”

The situation was stark, but not particularly surprising. This West Texas border town — with more than 677,000 residents, most of them Mexican American — is in a low voter-turnout county in a low voter-turnout state.

The county had 502,700 registered voters in the 2024 primaries, but only about 11% cast a ballot. That’s more than 7% lower than the last presidential primaries in 2020, and good for the second worst turnout rate in the state. In 2022 general midterm elections, 34% of El Paso’s registered voters cast a ballot, about 10% less than in the 2018 general midterms.

Statewide voter turnout for the 2024 primaries was 18%, lower than it was for the 2020 primaries. That’s typically low; Texas consistently ranks among the bottom 10 states in turnout.

While some political observers once again say the future of democracy is the line in the 2024 presidential election, there appears to be voter fatigue — or apathy — in El Paso and elsewhere around the state.

On primary election day, The Texas Tribune spoke to voters and non-voters across various demographics and backgrounds in El Paso about why they were voting — or why they weren’t.

Among the reasons people gave: a general lack of knowledge about how to register, dissatisfaction with the two leading candidates for president and a lack of excitement for local candidates. Others said that state officials and presidential candidates are too focused on immigration, an issue they said that doesn’t directly affect them, even though they live on the border.

Some also expressed a feeling that has persisted for years in this border town nearly 600 miles from the state capital: El Paso is an afterthought for state officials in Austin.

“Individuals here feel like that they’re a part of Texas, but also simultaneously aren’t. And that’s because the only time that El Paso tends to get focused on at the state level, is when there’s discussions of immigration,” said Todd A. Curry, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Curry added that when state officials focus on immigration when they talk about El Paso, residents across the state forget that the city is more than a major border hub. (El Paso has the second busiest border crossing in the world, with an estimated 25 million annual crossings.)

“It’s not a discussion about how our ports of entry contribute to the economic well-being of the state, it’s not a discussion of how much in pure dollar amount crosses the border daily in terms of commerce,” he said. “So, there’s a good reason why people don’t think about El Paso as having this economic power in the state.”

He said issues that are more pressing for El Paso voters, like raising the city’s minimum wage, forgiving student loans and the effects of climate change, are not being discussed by most local candidates, much less at the state level.

The notice of total number of voters at the Memorial Park Senior Citizen Center vote center tallied 94 people by 11:30am in El Paso, Texas on March 5, 2024.
At 11:30 on primary Election Day, 94 people had voted at the Memorial Park Senior Citizen Center in El Paso. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune

“They understand what immigration is,” Curry said. “Immigration doesn’t change our day inside or out. But if you tell me that I have to pay less student loans or my living wage increases, that’s really important.”

Many UTEP students didn’t know about election 

At a lounge area at the University of Texas at El Paso, dozens of students sat on sofas, some hovering over their laptops, others socializing. Nearby, a classroom was lined with voting machines. Hundreds of students walked past the room, where they could have weighed in on major party nominees for president, U.S. Senate and Texas Supreme Court. Some said they were unaware there was an election that day.

One student who voted was 23-year-old Jess Deluca, a career counseling major who moved from Maryland to attend college. She said she keeps up with current affairs and feels it’s important to vote.

“I just thought it was important to keep up with the things that we do have control over right now,” she said.

Jess Deluca, a UTEP student, voted for her second time earlier in the day in El Paso, Texas on March 5, 2024.
Jess Deluca, a UTEP student, on March 5, 2024. It was Deluca’s second time to vote. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune
Anthony Willis Jr., a UTEP student, did not know today was Election Day for the primaries in El Paso, Texas on March 5, 2025.
Anthony Willis Jr., a UTEP student, did not know it was Election Day for the primaries in El Paso. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune
First: Jess Deluca, a UTEP student, voted for the second time in her life in this year’s primaries. Last: Anthony Willis Jr., also a UTEP student, said he doesn’t vote because none of the candidates inspire him to do so. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune

She said few of her classmates voted, and she thinks it’s partly because most people have to go to school or work during voting hours. (Voting on election days runs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Counties can keep the polls open longer during the two-week early voting period.) She added that when she’s tried to have discussions with her friends about current events and voting, they quickly cut the conversation short.

“They’re like, ‘Yeah, I don’t vote,’ ” she said. “It’s a little frustrating because I know that everyone has opinions about how they would like things to go.”

Another UTEP student, Anthony Willis, Jr., 20, walked out of the building where the polling place was located and said he wasn’t aware there was an election. Willis, who is from Georgia, said he feels that El Paso residents don’t vote as much because they feel ignored by state officials.

“I think why is maybe because they feel like they’re irrelevant,” he said.

He added that he doesn’t vote because he doesn’t think current political candidates resonate with younger people. He said he knows that issues such as inflation or immigration are important, but he doesn’t know where to turn to for basic information on what these issues mean for people like him. He said news coverage or social media accounts focus on discussing political rhetoric rather than educating the public.

“For example, inflation is crazy right now. Right? I don’t know much about inflation. I just see it every day on the internet,” he said. “Or immigration, I hear about it, but I don’t really know how it affects me.”

Pauleth Talamantes, 18, was born in El Paso but raised across the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juárez. She also attends UTEP and is studying musical theater. Like most students the Tribune spoke to, she said she was unaware there was an election. She said part of the reason she’s not following politics is because she’s not interested in either presidential candidate. She said Biden and Trump seem too old to relate to.

“I feel like we need younger people in politics,” she said.

A protest non-vote for president

At a local mall, a line of about 20 people waited their turn at a voting booth. At a shoe store, employee Rafael Vades, 20, said he wanted to vote, but being consumed with school and work, he didn’t have time to register. He said he plans to vote in the November elections.

Unlike 20 states that allow voters to register on election day, Texas requires registration by the 30th day prior to the election. And it’s one of eight states that don’t allow voters to register online, except in rare cases.

Valdes, who is studying sign language in college, said that his peers have a lot of opinions about how El Paso can improve, and he’s told them that if they don’t vote, they can’t complain.

“If they have something to say, but they don’t want to vote, that’s pathetic to me,” he said after helping a mother find a pair of sneakers for her son. “Some people just want to talk but don’t want to do anything about it.”

Pauleth Elemantis, a UTEP student, did not know today was Election Day for the primaries and has no plans to vote in El Paso, Texas on March 5, 2025.
Pauleth Elemantis, a UTEP student, didn’t know it was Election Day and had no plans to vote. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune
Rafael Valdes, 20, works in the Basset Place Mall. Valdes missed the voter registration deadline but plans to vote in the next election. People line up behind Valdes to cast their vote in El Paso, Texas on March 5, 2024.
Rafael Valdes, 20, works in the Basset Place Mall in El Paso. Valdes missed the voter registration deadline but plans to vote in the next election. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune
First: Pauleth Elemantis, a UTEP student, said she didn’t know it was Election Day and had no plans to vote. Last: Rafael Valdes, 20, works in the Basset Place Mall in El Paso. Valdes missed the voter registration deadline but said he plans to vote in the next election. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune

Calvin Zeilsdorf, 41, said he woke up on election day not planning to vote but decided to anyway. At the mall’s polling place, he filled out his preferences for local candidates but intentionally left the state and federal races blank. He said he plans to do the same in November as a small protest; maybe the national parties will notice that some voters don’t want either Trump or Biden in office.

He said he is disillusioned with the current state of politics. He said he voted for Biden but does not plan to vote for him again because he’s frustrated with Biden’s lack of action in the Israel-Gaza conflict. He said he wants Biden to pressure Israel to stop its attacks on Palestinians.

Zeilsdorf added that he feels the country should have learned from past mistakes and achieved a better quality of life for all Americans.

“I feel like we should be somewhere different than we are now,” he said.

Calvin Zielsdorf in the Basset Place Mall after voting. Zielsdorf only voted for three local candidates so that his vote count is recorded but reflects his disillusionment with the State and National candidates. El Paso, Texas on March 5, 2025.
Calvin Zielsdorf in the Basset Place Mall after voting. Zielsdorf, disillusioned with the state and national candidates only voted for three local candidates. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune
Omar Jasso canvassing outside of the Gary del Palacio Recreation vote center. Jason has lived in El Paso for three months to work on the Selina Saenz and Nancy Casas campaigns. El Paso, Texas on March 5, 2024.
Omar Jasso canvassing outside of the Gary del Palacio Recreation vote center. Jason has lived in El Paso for three months to work on the Selina Saenz and Nancy Casas campaigns. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune
First: Calvin Zielsdorf in the Basset Place Mall after voting. Zielsdorf, disillusioned with state and national candidates, said he only voted for three local candidates. Last: Omar Jasso canvassing outside of the Gary del Palacio Recreation vote center. Jason had been in El Paso for three months to work on the Selina Saenz and Nancy Casas campaigns. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune

Five miles away at a local recreation center, Omar Jasso, 26, stood in the parking lot with two younger campaign volunteers, canvassing for Selina Saenz, a local state district judge candidate who won her race. Jasso, who is from Corpus Christi and recently graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, moved to El Paso earlier this year to work on local Democratic campaigns.

He said he grew up in a Mexican American family that mostly worked in the oil fields. The elders in his family encouraged to go to college and pursue a professional career, he said, but his family didn’t follow current affairs or politics so he was unfamiliar with social or political issues.

But something changed for him at a Corpus Christi community college, where he quickly became a self-described “political nerd” and started the school’s first Democratic club.

He said many of his peers don’t vote and simply don’t have an interest in politics. Among young Democrats, he said there’s just a lack of excitement for Biden.

“Now that we don’t have Trump in office anymore people are just kind of back to their normal lives, I feel like that might be a reason why voter turnout has just been going down,” he said.

But he still encourages his hometown friends to vote and tries to convince them why it’s important.

“My homeboys, they’re not voters, but they’ll take a listen to what I have to say,” he said. “I’ve tried to just come through as a reasonable person with them.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas at El Paso 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.

Students walk into the UTEP Union East building where voting is held. A total of 161 people voted at this location by 2:35pm in El Paso, Texas on March 5, 2024.
A student walks into the UTEP Union East building, where 161 people had voted as of 2:35 p.m. on Election Day. Credit: Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/03/29/texas-voting-el-paso-low-turnout/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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