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Texas Learns High Voter Registration Doesn't Always Mean High Turnout

Filipa Rodrigues for KUT

Today's the last day of early voting in Texas.

Reports had voter turnout trending well above average on that first day of polling, but that narrative has since fizzled. The Texas Tribune reports overall voter turnout is down in most of the state, compared to the last midterm election in 2010 ­– or at least so far. So what happened?

Texas Standard’s David Brown sits down with Regina Lawrence, the director for the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life and a professor at UT-Austin, to discuss Texas’ voter turnout. 

While midterm elections always have lower voter turnout – with Texas coming in last in 2010’s midterms – it seemed like 2014 was going to be different. But there does seem to have been a dramatic shift in that story of early voting so far.

"The difference this time was …  we had a gubernatorial race that was promising to be more competitive, a few months ago, than it has turned out to be," Lawrence says. "But also we had these openings at practically every level of state government. There was optimism that with all of those interesting races going on, that there would be greater levels of turnout."

Lawrence is quick to note that voter registration and voter turnout numbers don't always correlate."Texas hasn’t had such a registration problem as it has had a turnout problem," she says. Still, Lawrence still hopes that the numbers on Election Day will improve.

But why do people who register elect not to vote?

"The biggest single reason that people gave for not voting in 2010 was some version of 'I’m too busy,' or 'I have a conflicting work schedule' – and of course that could cover a lot of things."

Perhaps more concerning is the second most popular reason Lawrence says people gave for not voting: "people saying something like, 'I wasn’t interested,' or 'I felt like my vote wouldn’t matter.'" Getting to the bottom of that issue, Lawrence says, would expose some of the fundamental issues Texans currently face in voting.

Regardless, that response point sto one very large and obvious issue.

"We’ve had a situation [in Texas] where one party’s candidate is quite often almost a foregone conclusion that they’re going to win," Lawrence says. "A lot of research suggests that’s not good for voter turnout because the media have less incentive to pay attention to a race that’s not a close contest, and the voters have less incentive to pay attention if they feel as though it’s kind of already determined. And also the candidates have less incentive to reach out to voters and to try to talk to them if they know they are relatively assured of winning anyway."

Political parties, candidates and organizations that promote civic participation are developing new ways of reaching out to young voters .

"How do you meet young people where they are, where they live, in ways that are engaging for them and that are meaningful to them?" Lawrence asks. "Obviously it has to be digital and mobile and social. There are lots of interesting experiments going on now, so I’m actually cautiously optimistic about our ability to figure out how to reengage young people – but I don’t think we’re going to be able to fit them into the mold that worked for older generations."

Texas Standard intern Sarah Talaat contributed to this post. 

David entered radio journalism thanks to a love of storytelling, an obsession with news, and a desire to keep his hair long and play in rock bands. An inveterate political junkie with a passion for pop culture and the romance of radio, David has reported from bases in Washington, London, Los Angeles, and Boston for Monitor Radio and for NPR, and has anchored in-depth public radio documentaries from India, Brazil, and points across the United States and Europe. He is, perhaps, known most widely for his work as host of public radio's Marketplace. Fulfilling a lifelong dream of moving to Texas full-time in 2005, Brown joined the staff of KUT, launching the award-winning cultural journalism unit "Texas Music Matters."
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