The short answer is old people.
When Houston residents head to the ballot box this November to elect a new mayor and city government, fewer people may actually show up than in Seattle, a city with a third of our population.
About 1 in 5 registered voters in Houston typically participate in municipal elections, and even that figure omits residents who are eligible to vote but are not registered. Seattle, a city of 750,000 people, saw 265,000 people turn out in its November 2021 mayoral election; Houston’s 2019 contest garnered 241,000. In some council districts — where members represent 210,000 constituents — as few as 6,000 people voted.
As a result, the voting base collectively looks far different from Houston’s broader population, skewing dramatically older, whiter and more conservative. Two demographic disparities stand out: The median municipal voter in Houston is over 60 years old, meaning half the electorate was born before Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. And in a city where 47 percent of residents are Latino, only roughly 18 percent of the city’s voting base will share that background.
The share of city voters 65 and older (38%) is nearly triple the group’s share of Houston’s voting age population (14%), per census figures.
“From my perspective, (municipal turnout) is really a national scandal,” said Phil Keisling, a former Oregon secretary of state who studied municipal voting in United States’ 30 largest cities in 2016. “The fact that nobody was tracking this when we did the study was telling. The fact that nobody tracks it now on any systematic basis, I think, is remarkably sad.”
Keisling’s study found Houston ranked 18th out of the top 30 cities in municipal turnout at the time, though it fared better than Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. Houston fared worse in its age gap — its average voter was 19.6 years older than the average voting-age citizen, fourth worst among those 30 cities.
I’m a bit pressed for time, so I’m going to bullet-point this.
– I did a similar study after the 2013 election, a whole series of posts about who votes in the city elections, and I did include a look at the age ranges of city voters. I’m having some technical issues with the site right now that are hampering my ability to search so I don’t have those links at hand, but the short answer is that I found the same basic result. City elections are dominated by older voters, with youth share a much smaller percentage than it would be even in a non-Presidential even-year race. I have no doubt that is still the case.
– Greg Wythe said a long time ago that the way to change who votes in Houston elections, which would also change who gets elected to City Council, is to move these elections to even-numbered years. We could do them exclusively in Presidential years now if we wanted. This is discussed later in the story. While that would easily push turnout to well over 50%, probably over 60%, it is fair to say that the city races would get drowned out in that context. I’m not saying that’s a reason not to do it, just that it would be an effect of doing it, and we should be clear on that.
– Dallas and San Antonio do their city elections in May of odd-numbered years, which is why their turnout is even worse than ours. Austin used to do it that way, but their elections are now done in Novembers of even years. They have a lot more turnout now, not surprisingly.
– The comparison to Seattle may be shocking, but the conditions in Seattle are quite different, which makes this comparison specious at best.
Washington votes by mail every election.
If you are registered to vote in Washington, there is no need to request a ballot. Your ballot will be automatically mailed to the address where you’re registered to vote.
I guarantee it would increase turnout in Houston if we could do this. That is not up to us. This was also discussed later in the story.
– I have spoken to many (mostly younger) candidates over the years that have said they intend to increase youth turnout. Most if not all of those candidates didn’t have a lot of money available to them to make good on those plans. Changing the turnout equation is hard. As noted above, the biggest levers we could wield are not in the control of the candidates; the city could choose to move its elections to even years, but I have yet to see a candidate advocate that as part of their platform.
– As I have said before, we have a lot more registered voters now than we did in 2015, when we switched from elections every two years to elections every four years. In between then and now, we have had the highest turnout even-year elections in Harris County history. I believe that at least some of this will spill over into this year’s race. I expect we will get a boost in absolute numbers just from the larger voter pool, and maybe we’ll get a bit more from the recent spate of higher-turnout voting. I’m more confident about the first part of that.
I promise to try to return to this topic, maybe do another study if I can find the time, after this election. In the meantime, let me know what you think.