City News

Houston voter turnout lowest in years

Jose Gonzalez-Campelo/The Cougar

In the most recent November election, Houston faced a concerning decline in voter turnout, with less than 18% of registered voters casting their ballots, as reported by the Harris County Clerk. 

The mayoral race in Houston, featuring prominent figures such as state Sen. John Whitmire and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, was anticipated to significantly impact voter participation in this election cycle. Nevertheless, only 451,203 residents of Harris County voted during this election cycle, representing less than one-fifth of the population.

This marks a drop from the 2019 election, when just under 22% of registered voters participated. UH political science professor Michael Kistner attributed the decline to lack of inter-party competition, political apathy and local disengagement. 

“In my view, the biggest obstacle to voting for most people is they don’t know enough about the candidate and they don’t care enough to acquire that information,” Kistner said. “The best way to get more people to vote is to clearly communicate what’s at stake depending on who is elected.”

In addition to the lack of public engagement, the race missed inter-party competition as the front-runners of the race all identified with the Democratic party. 

Many voters don’t follow politics closely enough to understand much about individual candidates, but do know if they agree more with Democrats or Republicans, so in a race between two Democrats, people who don’t have enough knowledge are inclined to stay home, Kistner said.

“I didn’t vote because there wasn’t a candidate on the ballot that I had interest in,” said political science freshman Blake Johnson. “Maybe if there were candidates that had very different views from each other I would be more inclined, but they basically all stand for the same things.”

In recent years, Texas has imposed various voting restrictions as a response to Harris County’s initiatives aimed at expanding voter access and addressing issues within the county elections office, such as shortages of paper ballots and complications with voting machines.

An illustrative instance is Senate Bill 1, approved in 2021, which prohibits 24-hour and drive-thru voting. These methods were extensively utilized in the county during the 2020 election, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Additionally, Texas enacted measures preventing officials from distributing absentee mail-in ballot applications to eligible voters. Before Senate Bill 1750  passed this spring, county officials were mandated to revamp the Harris County Elections Office, with a provision specifically targeting the removal of the elections administrator from counties with a population of 3.5 million or more— a regulation uniquely impacting Harris County.

“Mail-in ballots would mobilize older voters because they have a more difficult time getting to the polls and 24-hour voting stations would help mobilize everyone and increase turnout,” said political science freshman Alexandra Gomez. “Hopefully we will see more ballot initiatives in the future, which will increase turnout.”

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