Turnout is only half the story

One other thing that I noticed while compiling the data for the elections from a bygone era is something that I never hear about whenever the turnout level in city elections gets bemoaned is the number of registered voters in the city of Houston. A quick check shows that this is definitely a factor:

Year Houston RV Harris RV Hou % ==================================== 2009 935,073 1,881,112 49.7% 2007 912,888 1,799,757 50.7% 2005 964,551 1,849,820 52.1% 2003 955,205 1,506,629 63.4% 2001 1,006,301 1,837,714 54.8% 1999 1,223,998 1,725,372 70.9% 1997 1,212,937 1,680,542 72.2%

There were nearly 300,000 fewer registered voters in the city of Houston for the 2009 election than there were in 1997, which as we saw was a high water mark for Mayoral contests. To put that in perspective, if the turnout rate in 2009 had been 28.2% as it was in 1997, total turnout in 2009 would have been 263,691, which is nearly 80,000 fewer votes than there were in 1997. To get to 342,099 total voters as we did in 1997, turnout in 2009 would have to have been 36.6%, which is higher than it was for the 2006, 2002, and 1998 statewide elections. Conversely, the 19.12% turnout we had in 2009 would translate to 231,914 voters, less than 50,000 more than what we had in 2009.

The question is why turnout has dropped so much in Houston. I’m sure the Harris County Tax Assessor’s tireless efforts to rid the voter rolls of anyone they deem ineligible is part of it, but I’m also sure it’s more than that. I’d guess it’s largely out-migration from Houston to the rest of Harris County and elsewhere, with the population that Houston has gained as replacement having a greater concentration of people who are not eligible to vote. I’ll have to defer to Greg on the question of Houston’s historic CVAP numbers, but I’d bet it’s been on a downward trend. Add that to what I’d suppose is a slight upward trend in the number of eligible but unregistered voters, and here you are.

Now clearly, there’s more to it than just this. Voter reg numbers in 2003 were similar to that of 2009, yet turnout in 2003 was much higher. (I have no idea why the Harris County registration numbers were so abnormally low that year. Given the bounceback in 2005, my guess is the reported number was simply wrong.) I don’t have a good explanation for that, nor do I have a hunch yet for whether the 2009 race will be seen as an anomaly or the new normal. What I am saying is that if you want to understand why turnout numbers in city elections are lower now than they were for many elections in the 1990s, there are two factors you cannot overlook: Lower voter registration numbers, and the lack of high profile city charter referenda.

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