Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “Let us not be afraid to help each other – let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and Senators and Congressmen and Government officials but the voters of this country.”
That’s a powerful statement – inspiring even. But what happens when citizens don’t exercise their right to vote? In the 2016 election, Texas ranked 47th in voter turnout among states and the District of Columbia. So why is political participation so low in the state?
The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, in collaboration with partners, including KUT Radio in Austin has released their Civic Health Index to help answer that question.
Susan Nold, director, of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life and Jay Jennings, a postdoctoral fellow, at the Institute, spoke with Texas Standard’s Laura Rice.
To conduct their study, Strauss Institute researchers relied on U.S. Census data, as well as their own work as part of the Texas Media and Society Survey.
Nold says there are several explanations for Texas’ low rate of voter participation. For one thing, the sheer size of the state makes raw numbers seem larger, even when percentage changes are small.
“Even a tiny, tiny one percent improvement in this area means a whole lot of people are more engaged and participating,” she says.
Nold says frequent moves into and within Texas mean voter registrations are not always up-to-date in time for elections, meaning residents might not be able to vote in their new county for awhile. Relocating may also mean voters aren’t familiar with local candidates and issues.
Jennings says people who responded to surveys asking why they don’t vote most often say they’re too busy. In 2016, Jennings says, potential voters also said they didn’t like their choices.
“The candidates themselves were maybe turning away more voters in 2016 than in 2012,” Jennings says.
Nold says civic engagement is more than voting. She says the report defines it as a “three-legged stool.”
“One leg of the stool is political participation…the other leg of the stool is philanthropy – community service, volunteering and donating – and the final leg of the stool…is neighborliness and our social connections – do we know our neighbors, do we trust or neighbors, are we doing favors for our neighbors?”
The report says Texas’ strength in civic engagements is neighborliness, though the state is only in the middle of the pack in that category.
This report was produced in collaboration with the National Conference on Citizenship, the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service, Leadership Austin, the Austin Community Foundation, KLRU-TV and KUT Radio.