13 Investigates low voter turnout in Houston-area districts

UPDATE: On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott limited where Texans can drop off mail-in ballots in person to one location per county. Four of the 11 now-closed Harris County sites are in congressional districts where less than 40 percent of adults cast a ballot in the 2018 election.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Rie Congelio stood on a sidewalk along the edge of Moody Park in Houston holding a white poster board with the words "Register to Vote" written in red and blue capital letters.

"Are you registered," she yelled as cars drove by the METRORail stop where she was standing.

She paced back and forth and when a train pulled into the station, Congelio stretched her arms out, positioning the sign for riders to see.

"Hey, are you registered to vote," she asked again as a passenger exited the train. Without making eye contact, the rider walked past her, groceries in hand.

"It's a little slow going," Congelio said. "You also have to have a high tolerance for rejection."

With just days until the voter registration deadline Monday, there's still tens of thousands of Texans who are eligible to vote but haven't registered. Political analysts say lack of registered voters could lead to low voter turnout in areas that have historically had the fewest voters, including in three of Houston's congressional districts.

During the 2018 election, 10 of the nation's 435 Congressional Districts saw less than 35% of voting-age citizens cast a ballot, according to an analysis by 13 Investigates at ABC Owned Stations. Four of those districts were in Texas and three were in New York City.

Texas' 29th Congressional District in Houston is the ninth worst performing district in the nation in real voter turnout.

During the 2018 election, only 33.6% of people 18 years or older who were citizens eligible to vote in Texas' 29th district actually voted, according to our analysis of U.S. Census data. The voter turnout was only slightly better in the 2016 election, when 39.2% of eligible voters cast a ballot in that district.

INTERACTIVE: How is voter turnout in your community? Explore the U.S. Congressional Districts with the worst voter turnout using this interactive map.

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Two more of the nation's worst districts are in Houston, too. Only 36% of eligible voters in Texas' 9th Congressional district actually voted in 2018 and about 40% of eligible voters in the 18th Congressional district voted.

"I think they don't understand how important they are. You know? I mean, everyone matters. Your vote matters, but I think some people just don't think their vote matters and it does," said Congelio, a League of Women Voters volunteer who lives in the Heights.

Barriers to registration

The first time Marco Campos helped citizens register to vote in Texas was ahead of the 1972 general election between President Richard Nixon and then-U.S. Senator George McGovern.

"We'd set up in front of grocery stores, churches, things like that, or go door to door," said Campos, a political consultant in Houston.

In the 48 years since, Campos has continued helping people register to vote, but said outside of more voter registration awareness, the actual process of registering to vote in Texas hasn't gotten easier.

Texas is one of only nine states across the U.S. without a law that allows people to register to vote online. Last month, a federal judge ruled Texans who renew their licenses online can register to vote at that time.

"But, that's the only way you can register to vote online," Campos said.

Albert Morales, a senior political director at Washington, D.C.-based Latino Decisions, said it shouldn't be that difficult for residents to register to vote, and called Texas' system "archaic."

"If I were a Harris County resident and I want to register voters, I have to get deputized to do that and I have to do it only in my county," Morales said. "If I get caught registering voters in Travis County and I'm not deputized to do so, I would be engaging in criminal activity and no one wants to do that."

Voter registration in Harris County has been keeping up with the growth of the county, Campos said. But not enough.

"If the county grows 10%, our registration also grows by 10%," Campos said. "Will we ever catch up? Probably not until we get true immigration reform done."

In Texas alone, since the last presidential election, there have been 730,000 new Latino voters who have turned 18 between Election Day 2016 and this year, Morales said.

Both Morales and Campos said Latinos are not universally Democrats.

"As you make more money, we've seen in our community that a lot of Latinos tend to vote Republican," Campos said.

In Houston's 29th Congressional District, where only 33.6% of eligible voters cast a ballot, the median household income is about $43,600 compared to the national median income of about $60,300. About 90% of the district's population is also considered a minority.

"Historically, there's not been strong investment in majority minority districts, especially when Texas was not competitive," Morales said. "The rule of thumb was, if the voter has no vote history, you don't bother knocking on that door. You don't send that voter a mail piece, you don't call them with robocalls."

But, without reaching out to people who don't typically vote or who haven't voted in more than a decade, Campos said campaign efforts aren't turning non-voters into voters.

Ultimately, communities who don't register and vote in elections are missing out on deciding their own future and having their voice heard, Campos said.

"It's just mind boggling that some people just don't vote," he said.

Persistence

Congelio held her "Register to Vote" sign above her head, turned around and asked "Did they just get off (the train)?"

She darted several feet toward two people sitting at the train stop: 71-year-old Luke Hall and 62-year-old Audrey Bradley.

"Are you registered to vote," she asked, through her face mask. They respond with "no."

"Would you like to be? You should be," Congelio said.

Congelio asked the two if they want an English or Spanish vote by mail registration form and explained they'll need their driver's license or other ID information.

She handed them a pre-stamped envelope so they could mail the voter registration form for free and told them about her polling location, just off the METRORail line where they are waiting for the next train.

Then, she walks back to the corner where she's been standing alone all day and once again asks strangers passing by, "are you registered to vote?"

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