A polling place in 2018. Photo by Creagh Cross.

Politics & Government

Today Is Election Day, So Let’s Talk About Voter Turnout

It will probably be abysmal, again. That doesn't mean we shouldn't point that out. Again.

There is a funny, sort-of-sad line in this CityLab piece about boosting participation in local elections by two of the higher ups at the National League of Cities: “…in what is supposedly one of the most democratic countries, we can’t get more than half of our population to vote regularly.”

Dallas would kill for those numbers. Today is Election Day, on which you all will have the chance to vote on a bevy of state constitutional amendments. Some will vote on a replacement for former state Rep. Eric Johnson in District 100, the House seat he vacated when he won mayor. There are some local races in Mesquite. But all signs point to this being a disastrous turnout, despite the fact that you can now vote at any county polling location—not just the ones in your district.

In the May election, perhaps the most important mayoral race in recent Dallas history, about 11 percent of registered voters went to the polls. Four years before that, 7.4 percent of registered voters reelected Mayor Mike Rawlings. That was good enough to be the worst turnout in the nation’s 50 largest cities. In the last non-mayoral election, when there was a multi-billion dollar bond package up for a vote as well as some constitutional amendments and the future of the Dallas County Schools busing system, just 6.5 percent of voters cared to express themselves on a ballot.

The CityLab article notes that “our voter registration process is complicated and punitive,” particularly so in Texas. The writers—Brooks Rainwater, a senior executive at the League, and Olivia Snarski, a local democracy program leader—highlight some creative ways to motivate voter turnout: train social services providers on voter registration assistance, give landlords incentives to hand over registration forms, embrace public schools as a convener for such efforts. (Some of those things are already happening here.) Same-day registration, which Rainwater and Snarski say jump turnout by 10 percent in states that offer it, probably won’t fly politically in Texas.

The story is interesting, but it places a lot of responsibility on the backs of mayors. And in Dallas, Mayor Eric Johnson simply isn’t able to enact policies like tax credits to small businesses that give their employees the day off to go vote. (We do have two full weeks of early voting, something not every other state offers.) The weak mayor system puts that power in the hands of the city manager and City Council. That’s not to say we can’t think creatively about this:

Mayors can also incentivize small businesses to do more than just give time off—and preferably paid time off—to employees by offering a tax credit for including messaging on their receipts about voter registration. Small businesses have a tremendous role in transforming local culture—cities can design and provide banners and posters to decorate their window fronts all the way down Main Street. Mayors can also prioritize breaking down transportation barriers on election day.

There’s precedent for this level of local involvement in voter turnout: In small towns like Lynchburg, Virginia, and large cities like Los Angeles, California, buses and trains are free on election day. Minneapolis encourages young people to serve as poll workers, because they are more likely to be tech-savvy and bilingual and the secondary benefit is that they learn about the importance of voting. Boston is focused on helping community members get involved and engaged by making registration easier when people are renewing parking permits and library cards; at the same time, local high schools in the city have been sharing pre-registration materials with students.

They close with a nice sentiment: “Maybe the key was always going to be small, systemic, and cultural transformations at the municipal level.”

Former Mayor Mike Rawlings agitated for swapping municipal elections from May to November, when voter turnout is higher because of the presidential race. He would’ve had to convince a City Council majority and Dallas voters to do so. Eric Celeste wrote about this for us last year:

Other cities have already proven this move works. Austin voted in 2012 to change its city charter and hold November municipal elections. Turnout went from 10.7 percent in May 2012 to 40.4 percent in November 2014. San Antonio saw those numbers and is right now debating a move to November municipal elections.

But anyway—don’t count on your local leaders to immediately boost voter turnout. You hold that power today. Like, literally. Here is the Dallas Morning News’ voter guide on today’s election, and here is where you can find your polling place. Get to it.

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