Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

On African-American turnout in city elections

Bill King makes an observation about Ben Hall’s chances in the upcoming Mayoral election.

Ben Hall

When Lee Brown was elected mayor in 1997, many pundits predicted that with Houston’s growing minority community, Houston had seen its last white mayor.

That, of course, proved not to be the case as Bill White and Annise Parker defeated minority candidates in 2003 and 2009.

In each of those elections, there were credible, well-financed African-American candidates: Sylvester Turner in 2003 and Gene Locke in 2009. However, in 2003, Turner did not even make the runoff, and in 2009, Locke narrowly made the runoff and lost to Parker by a 53-47 margin.

The principal reason that Turner and Locke lost their mayoral bids was a dramatic decline in African-American turnout in city elections.

I looked at the election results in five key, predominantly African-American precincts from around the city. In the 2001 election when Brown faced a stiff challenge from Orlando Sanchez for his third term, the turnout in the general election in these five precincts averaged just less than 30 percent.

For the runoff between Brown and Sanchez, the turnout actually went up to almost 37 percent. The five precincts produced more than 5,600 votes, and Brown won more than 95 percent of those votes.

In 2003, when Bill White, Orlando Sanchez and Sylvester Turner squared off in the general election, the turnout in these precincts was about the same as the 2001 general election, but Turner got only about 80 percent of the vote compared to Brown’s 95 percent.

This was the decisive factor in Turner not making the runoff. With him eliminated, turnout in the runoff in these precincts dropped by almost half to just 17 percent.

In 2009, Locke was unable to motivate African-American turnout or rack up the margin,s that Brown achieved in 2001. In the 2009 general election and in the runoff, turnout in these precincts was only 15 percent, with Locke winning about 84 percent of the vote.

From just these five precincts, Turner got 1,650 fewer votes in 2003 than Brown did in the 2001 runoff. In the 2009 runoff, Locke got a staggering 3,300 fewer votes than Brown did in the 2001 runoff. The significance of this drop in vote totals is highlighted when you consider that Locke lost by fewer than 9,000 votes citywide.

Here’s the problem with this analysis: It assumes that the decline in African-American turnout, as epitomized by these five precincts King highlights, is independent of citywide turnout. That’s not the case, however. Consider:

2001 election – 290,556 total votes, 28.30% turnout in Harris County, Five Key Precincts turnout is “just less than 30%.

2001 runoff – 326,254 total votes, 31.23% turnout in Harris County, Five Key Precincts turnout is “almost 37%”.

2003 election – The page says 381,274 total votes, but that can’t be right since there were 298,189 Harris County votes, for 31.22% turnout. Assume it’s more like 301,000 total votes, with 31.22% Harris County turnout, Five Key Precincts turnout is “about the same as the 2001 general election”, or “just less than 30%”. Don’t you love all this precision?

2003 runoff – 220,725 total votes, Harris County turnout is 22.71%, Five Key Precincts turnout is “just 17 percent”.

2009 election – 181,659 total votes, 19.12% Harris County turnout, Five Key Precincts turnout is “only 15 percent”.

2009 runoff – 160,046 total votes, 16.48% Harris County turnout, Five Key Precincts turnout is again “only 15 percent”.

In other words, the Five Key Precincts turnout tracks the overall citywide turnout pretty closely. The question isn’t “why did African-American turnout decline so much from 2003 to 2009”, but why did overall turnout decline so much? I don’t have a good answer for that. I can say that one reason why Sylvester Turner got a lower percentage of the African-American vote is because unlike Lee Brown, he had a Democratic opponent as well as a Republican one. Maybe Ben Hall will do a better job turning out African-American voters than Gene Locke did, but to some extent that’s a function of overall turnout.

There is almost a demographic component to the decline. African-Americans, who tend to vote in higher percentages, are increasingly leaving their inner-city neighborhoods for the suburbs, just as their white counterparts did in past decades.

Pearland and several of the cities in Fort Bend County now have significant African-American populations. To some extent, the out-migration of African-Americans has been backfilled by Latinos, who so far have shown little interest in participating in city elections.

Also, when you drive through some of the historically African-American areas in the city, there is an obvious “hollowing out” of these neighborhoods. There are an estimated 8,000 abandoned homes in the city.

The vast majority of these are in historically African-American neighborhoods.

As we’ve just seen, African-American turnout is correlated to overall turnout. Beyond that, there’s a lot of anecdote and supposition but not much hard evidence. It’s true that population has declined in certain historically black neighborhoods. This is a long term trend. But that doesn’t mean that African-American population in the city of Houston as a whole is declining. According to the Census, black people were 23.7% of Houston’s population in 2010, and they were 25.3% of the population in the 2000 Census. That may sound like a steep decline, but the overall population of Houston went from 1,953,631 in 2000 to 2,099,651 in 2010, so if you do the math the black population actually went up, from 494,269 in 2000 to 497,617 in 2010. Unless you posit that black people outside the Five Key Precincts vote differently than those inside them, I think another explanation is needed.

Now, I do agree with King that Hall will need more than just African-American votes to win, and that he will need to develop another constituency, which as Campos notes they are trying to do. The question is how does he succeed where Gene Locke failed. Maybe there’s something in the numbers to suggest what that is, but if so it’s not apparent to me.

Related Posts:

Comments are closed.