Texas’ Turnout Problem

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The 2008 election was supposed to break all the records. After a presidential primary season in which hordes of voters overwhelmed polling stations, some pundits predicted that voter turnout in the general election would be unlike anything we’d ever seen.

It didn’t turn out that way. At least not in Texas.

The U.S. Census Bureau just released a report on 2008 turnout. The numbers have been generating headlines in Texas.

Kuffner has a great run down of the coverage (and adds some interesting insights).

As most stories have mentioned, Texas’ voter turnout was once again dismal in 2008. All hype aside, the percentage of eligible Texans who ventured to the polls last year (56 percent) was actually slightly lower than 2004 (57 percent). That ranks Texas as one of the lowest-turnout states in the country and well below the national average.

Nationwide, voter turnout remained flat from 2004 to 2008 — holding steady at 64 percent of eligible voters. If you want to geek out, you can view detailed breakdowns of the voter data here.

I noticed a couple of trends in the data. None of the five states with the lowest voter turnout in the nation — Texas included — were swing states in the presidential election. It seems clear that states not in play in the presidential race will have sluggish turnout. Voters just aren’t as excited by Congressional, state and local races.

In Texas, that trend was especially stark. The state saw record turnout in the 2008 Democratic primary — fueled by the race between Obama and Hillary Clinton. That excitement didn’t last until November. By some estimates, more than a quarter of the people who voted in the Democratic primary didn’t show up for the general election

Now, you can blame that drop off on poor turnout operations by Texas Democrats, and some people have. But clearly a hot presidential race provides the ultimate voter motivation.

That leads to an interesting conundrum: Texas Democrats need higher voter turnout (especially among Latinos) to make the state competitive in presidential races. But the data seems to suggest that the easiest and fastest way to turnout more voters is with a competitive presidential race in the state. So which comes first? Will a future Democratic presidential candidate take a chance on Texas in hopes of motivating soft-Democratic voters or will Texas Dems first have to find a way to turnout more of their voters?

Perhaps they can take a hint from the state with the highest voter turnout — Minnesota.

Seventy-five percent of eligible Minnesotans voted in 2008. And if you’ve ever been to Minnesota in November, you know it’s not because of the weather. The state did have a high-profile Senate race last year between Norm Coleman and Al Franken, which probably helped.

But the far bigger factor was likely Minnesota’s same-day registration. (The state has boasted the nation’s highest voter turnout for seven election cycles in a row.)

In the Gopher State, voters need not register in advance, and no one is locked out of the election because they didn’t meet an arbitrary registration deadline. They can simply show up at the polls on Election Day, verify their eligibility and cast a ballot.

That’s an approach Texas lawmakers might consider if they ever want to boost voter turnout.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.