The Austin Chronicle

It's Lonely at the Polls

By Richard Whittaker, November 1, 2013, News

No City Council or presidential elections = no voters.

That's the message reinforced by the low early voter turnout numbers for the Nov. 5 election. As of Tuesday, Oct. 29, after a week of voting, only 18,280 residents – 2.92% of Travis County's 618,200 registered voters – had made it to the ballot box or posted their mail ballot.

There is still little evidence that Texas voters are energized over this year's big constitutional amendment – a $2 billion transfer from the state's Rainy Day Fund into a new loan system called the State Water Imple­mentation Fund for Texas (see "Prop. 6: Strange Bedfellows on Both Sides," Oct. 25). Yet Travis County residents have more reason than most to show up at the polls. Aside from the statewide initiatives, there is also the city of Austin's $65 million affordable housing bond, and the special election in House District 50 to finish Mark Strama's unexpired legislative term. Even in that House race, the increased fury and negative campaigning between the three Democratic candidates – Celia Israel, Rico Reyes, and Jade Chang Sheppard – and their sole GOP opponent, Mike VanDeWalle, have done little to inspire voters. At the three big voting locations in the district (Pflugerville Tax Office, the Gus Garcia Recreation Center, and the Randalls at Research and Braker), combined turnout had yet to break 4,000 voters by close of business on Oct. 28. At this rate, voter participation may struggle to hit the 8.2% figure predicted by internal campaign polling.

However, lousy as those numbers are, they could be far worse. According to the Secre­tary of State's office, Travis County ranks third out of the 15 most populated counties for turnout so far. With 2.51% turnout by the end of voting on Oct. 27, we slightly trail Harris, where council and mayoral elections have seen a worryingly low 2.63% turnout. The leader is Nueces County, where a $45 million proposition to turn the old Memorial Coliseum into a visitor center has pushed participation to a still-paltry 3.9%. By comparison, turnout has limped in Dallas (.77%) and El Paso (.41%)

This is the first election under Texas' new voter ID laws, and there is bound to be great scrutiny of its impact on vote participation. There have already been multiple reports of voters – particularly women who have changed their names due to marriage or divorce – having problems exercising their democratic right. Another warning sign is how few people took up the state on its offer of free election identification certificates for voters with no photo ID. During a recent outreach effort by the Travis County Tax Asses­sor-Collector, precisely zero were issued in the county. According to that office, many applicants are choosing to pay for a standard state-issued drivers license or ID card when they realize the voter ID will not allow them to perform standard tasks like cashing a check.

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