What will low turnout mean for special election to replace Sen. Mario Gallegos?

January 24, 2013 2:15:46 PM PST
This Saturday voters in central and southeast Harris County will go to the polls to select a replacement for Senator Mario Gallegos, Jr., a veteran legislator who passed away just before the November 2012 General Election. Let me rephrase that: A very few voters will go to the polls to select a new state senator. How do we know this? Let's look at the numbers.

In the General Election ten weeks ago, 137,993 of 284,248 registered voters, or 48.5 percent, cast ballots in this district. A large majority, 93,289 (71 percent) voted for the deceased Senator Gallegos, and 38,201 (29 percent) voted for his Republican opponent, R.W. Bray. Since the winner could not assume office, this result forced the special election scheduled for January 26.

We have now completed early-in person voting and most mail ballots have been tabulated, and fewer than 8,000 votes are in. This suggests we will likely have a total turnout of only 15,000 - 16,000 voters in the election -- which would equate to about 6 percent of the eligible electorate taking part. That is, to me, an astounding low turnout in an election that matters.

Given that state senators are big fish in the Texas Legislature -- there are only 31 of them and every senator has considerable power in a body that has to have a considerable degree of cooperation to get business done in a regular session of just 140 days every other year -- why are the great majority of local voters passing on this contest?

We can rule some things out. Lack of alternatives is not the answer as eight contenders are on the ballot, six Democrats and two Republicans. Two of the eight are veteran politicians, former County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia and State Representative Carol Alvarado, and both have sizeable war-chests to fund voter outreach. Dozens of groups have made endorsements, suggesting lots of political players think this is an important election. And yet registered voters are avoiding the polls like the flu wing at Ben Taub Hospital.

My explanation of the extremely low turnout include these factors:

  1. Coming just a few weeks after a year-old presidential contest, voters have tuned out elections for a while.
  2. The experienced and funded candidates (Garcia and Alvarado) are both Democrats that differ little on the important issues of funding education and health care, opposing most initiatives being pushed by Governor Perry and the Texas GOP, supporting immigration reform, etc., etc.. So whoever wins, votes in Austin are not going to change much.
  3. And both serious contenders are Latinas in an overwhelmingly Hispanic district.
  4. Both the funded campaigns are targeting likely voters, which means most registered voters living in the district do not get much attention from the Garcia and Alvarado campaigns.

Add these up, and only about one in 16 registered voters are expected to turn out.

Given low turnout, what does this mean for the outcome? This becomes an election where getting family, friends and neighbors to the polls assumes much greater importance than is usually the case in legislative contests. Conversely, having name ID (a name voters recognize on a list) is of very little consequence is this stand-alone election where everyone who shows up is coming to the polls to vote for someone specifically.

Card-pushing at the polls, a standard campaign tactic, is worthless in this election and group endorsements mean little. Everything hinges on finding those needles in the haystack who favor your candidacy, and getting them to the polls.

The bottom line is the better candidate and campaign should prevail in this environment. But with eight people on the ballot, it is very unlikely either Garcia or Alvarado can get 50 percent plus Saturday, so their campaigns should have another few weeks to find those needles and get then back in a runoff.

Click here to read more from Dr. Murray.

More on Dr. Richard Murray

Richard Murray is a native of Louisiana with B.A. and M.A. degrees in Government from Louisiana State University (1962, 1963) and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota (1967). Dr. Murray has taught at the University of Houston since 1966 and is currently the Bob Lanier Professor of Public Policy in the UH Department of Political Science and Director of Surveying for the UH Center for Public Policy.

His academic interests are in Houston and Texas politics, focusing on campaigns and elections, political parties and interest groups, and public opinion. Professor Murray has written extensively in these areas, while teaching courses ranging from graduate seminars to introductory American Government.

In a previous life, Professor Murray consulted in more than 200 political campaigns before completing the 12-step recovery program in the late 1980s. He occasionally conducts polls for local media and governments and is a political analyst for Channel 13, KTRK Television.

Professor Murray is married to Deborah Hartman, and has three sons, Robert, Keir, and Dylan Murray.
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