City Elections in Houston: The Disappearing Urban Voters

May 25, 2013 6:28:11 AM PDT
Houston elects its city officials in odd-numbered years, which means we'll go to the polls to elect our mayor, controller, and city council members this November. With a competitive mayoral race looming between incumbent Annise Parker and challenger Ben Hall, we can expect to see millions of dollars spent on TV ads, mailers, yard signs, and all the other accoutrements of modern campaigns for big political jobs. What we will not see are voters flocking to the polls.

In Houston and other large American cities, voter turnout in mayoral elections has dropped sharply in recent years. The Los Angeles mayoral election on Tuesday of this week, for example, drew a puny 19% of the registered voters to the polls despite the two finalists spending 35 million dollars promoting themselves.

To document the decline in voter participation in Houston, I went to the Office of City Secretary Anna Russell's website and clicked on past elections. The data base goes back to 1971, so I looked at the results in the December 7th mayoral runoff that year. The results were:

Louie Welch... 141,753 votes or 52.82 percent
Fred Hofheinz... 126,637 votes or 47.18 percent

I then looked at the results of the December 12th runoff in 2009. The results 38 years later were:

Annise Parker... 82,175 votes or 52.79 percent
Gene Locke... 73,495 votes or 47.22 percent

Aside from the fact that the winner's margin of victory was also exactly the same in 2009 as 1971, the most interesting thing about these two elections to me is the dramatic drop in voters. In 1971 268,390 votes were counted in the mayor's race compared to just 155,670 four years ago.

What accounts for this huge decline in voter turnout? Maybe, like Detroit, Cleveland, or St. Louis, the City of Houston is smaller today than in the early 1970s. We can quickly rule that out. The 1970 census counted 1,232,802 people in the Bayou City compared to 2,099,451 in 2010. The fact that the city grew 70% between 1970 and 2010 while the mayoral vote declined by 42% from 1971 to 2009 makes the dropoff in voting even more puzzling.

If the simple explanation of fewer people equals fewer voters is not the case, we have to consider other possibilities. One would be that the office of mayor in Houston is less important today than 40 years ago. Again, we can reject this. Since the early 1940s the City Charter has concentrated huge powers in the chief executive position. That was true in 1971, as it was in 2009. Nor do we see a decline in campaign spending. Adjusting for inflation, serious mayoral candidates raise and spend equal or greater sums today that was the case four decades ago.

While there are a number of plausible explanations for the sharp voter decline in Houston (and many other big cities), the most credible two are:

(1) The makeup of the urban population has changed dramatically in recent decades. In 1970, Houston's population was 61% Anglo (persons who told the census they were white and not Hispanic) and 26% Black. In 2010, the City's population was 26% Anglo and 23% Black. What is driving this big shift is the huge growth in the Hispanic population (12% in 1970 but 44% in 2010) and the Asian /Other category (1% in 1970 and 7% in 2010). For reasons we need not go into to here, age-eligible Hispanics and Asians vote at much lower levels than Anglos and Blacks, so the replacement of Anglos and Blacks in the City by Latinos and Asians means that overall voter turnout declines even as the total population increases.

(2) The second factor is the declining polarization of big city electorates, including Houston's. Forty years ago, big cities had a very different political mix compared to today. The white majority was a mix of socioeconomic types who tended to block up and turn out in large numbers in opposition to candidates supported by the growing Black electorate. That is what happened in 1971. Louie Welch got 78% of the Anglo vote while Fred Hofheinz (who was white like Welch), got 98% of the Black vote. Compare that to 2009, when a credible Black candidate (Gene Locke) got only 85% of the smaller Black vote, while taking about 28% of the white vote.

So while there is enormous partisan and cultural polarization in the nation these days, that is generally not the case in large cities like Houston. The whites who remain in the City are more politically moderate than was the case 40 years ago, and the rest of the electorate in much more diverse. There is now a far larger Black middle class as well as numerous Hispanic and Asian voters. This means Houston, like other big cities, is now strongly Democratic in partisan elections, and culturally liberal on social issues.

And that means the differences between serious mayoral contenders like Parker and Locke in 2009 are far smaller than was the case in 1971 between Welch and Hofheinz. And that reality depresses voter interest and turnout.

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