In boxing, a scrappy little fighter showing unexpected strength is said to punch above his weight. When it comes to Texas politics, El Paso is more like a muscular-looking fighter whose jabs don’t sting. We punch below our weight.
El Paso is the 19th largest city in the country and sixth-largest in Texas, but in terms of political influence, much smaller suburban counties around Austin and Houston turn out far more voters than El Paso. Sometimes, El Paso is even outvoted by another border county, Hidalgo County in the Rio Grande Valley, even though it has fewer registered voters.
In the 2018 midterm election, El Paso has the eighth highest total of registered voters in Texas. But if history is any indication, 10 or 11 counties will cast more votes than El Paso.
Our low turnout has real consequences. El Paso has far less influence on state decision making than it would if we voted in higher numbers. Candidates make fewer visits, making it more difficult for them to understand our needs. Some candidates feel they are free to criticize the border region, even falsely, because they see no electoral consequences from taking that course.
Low turnout is nothing new in El Paso, but our voting levels are getting worse. In the 2014 midterm election, fewer than 20 percent of registered voters in El Paso cast ballots. That was the lowest percentage in El Paso’s history for a midterm election.
Here’s another way to look at it: El Paso cast just over 82,000 votes in the 2014 midterm election. Twenty years earlier, in 1994, we cast 95,000 votes. El Paso’s population had grown by more than 30 percent in those two decades, but we cast far fewer votes.
There was a brief glimpse of hope in the 2016 presidential election. Nearly 219,000 El Paso voters came out, about 30,000 more than the previous record turnout in 2008. Still, that was less than half of registered voters.
The next year, however, voting plunged again during the city’s mayoral election. Only 33,000 people cast ballots in the mayor’s race – nine percent of registered voters – compared to 46,000 four years earlier.
So what will 2018 look like?
For the first time, an El Pasoan is at the top of the ticket for a major statewide race. Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke is taking on Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican incumbent. O’Rourke signs seem more common than trees in El Paso yards.
So, it’s reasonable to think that turnout will certainly be higher than the dreadful result in 2014. Numerous individuals and groups, many inspired by O’Rourke, have been registering voters at a feverish pace. El Paso now has more than 450,000 registered voters, nearly 30,000 more than two years ago.
Higher turnout won’t just occur by magic. Those same people who were out registering voters now have to turn to the more difficult work of getting them to vote. The O’Rourke campaign is using sophisticated technology to track likely supporters and push them to vote. Republican candidates like Cruz and Gov. Greg Abbott also have state-of-the-art technology to push their likely voters to the polls.
What would a higher turnout look like?
If El Paso turnout grew from the 20 percent of registered voters in 2014 to the 30 percent level we reached as recently as the 2002 midterm, that would result in more than 136,000 votes cast – more than 50,000 above the last midterm total. A 30 percent turnout would be closer to recent statewide midterm turnout of about 33 percent of registered voters.
A 30 percent turnout – while still extremely low by national standards – would mean that El Paso was coming to close to punching at its weight in Texas.