Apathy, education contributing to low voter turnout in Lubbock elections

While voter turnout for Lubbock’s local elections is rarely considered good, this year was particularly low.

By Sarah Self-Walbrick & Brad Burt, Texas Tech Public MediaJuly 18, 2022 11:55 am, ,

In June, Juan Chadis ended his six years representing District 1 on the Lubbock City Council. In his last few minutes as a city councilman, Chadis had this parting message.

“It’s time for a scolding because of the dismal turnout at the voting,” Chadis said. “It’s disappointing. You want to get involved in city politics? Easiest way to get involved in city politics is by voting.”

Even with the chance to elect a new representative, the predominantly Hispanic District 1 had 1,400 people vote in the May municipal election. That’s 3% of people who live in the district.

While voter turnout for Lubbock’s local elections is rarely considered good, this year was particularly low.

A little over 19,000 people in the city voted, according to the Lubbock County Elections Office. That means just 13% of Lubbock’s registered voters cast ballots that chose a new mayor and three new city council members.

District 3, like District 1, was an open seat. Only one candidate ran for that position. He didn’t need the votes, but 2,000 people showed up to the polls. District breakdowns show District 5, the only one with an incumbent on the ballot, had 4,700 voters.

The runner-up in this year’s mayoral race, Adam Hernandez is trying to get to the bottom of low voter turnout in Lubbock. He earned about 3,500 votes and won several precincts.

The precincts Hernandez won are in parts of Lubbock with historically low turnout, like in District 1. They’re also some of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. Hernandez said those voters don’t recognize their potential power.

“It was just that not enough people in those precincts that I won showed up,” Hernandez said. “If just a small percentage more of them showed up, they would control every single election. And people just don’t know that.”

As a more recent local activist, Hernandez expressed his desire to see more Lubbockites involved with local government. Hernandez is one of a group of citizens who spoke to the Lubbock City Council in June, opposing a change to the council’s meeting times from 4:30 p.m. to 2 p.m.

Every member of the city council made statements at that meeting saying they wish to see more engagement from citizens. They hope that a time change will bring in new people.

Hernandez plans to run for mayor again in two years, so he’s talking with folks about why they didn’t vote this time. He’s found a few common reasons, like education.

“They’re just not informed enough,” Hernandez explained. “In their minds, it’s just too difficult to kind of fish all that information out.”

Another reason, he said, is apathy. Many people told Hernandez they think their vote doesn’t matter. They feel like the “winner” has already been chosen.

Hernandez personally understands this logic. He voted for the first time in 2020, at 39 years old, after getting more involved in the community.

“As I started to come of age, older folks than me basically turned us away from voting, and said that doesn’t matter,” Hernandez said. “It was all in the music we were listening to, the same message. It grows on you and that becomes you after a while.”

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science expert at the University of Houston, said how people feel about the effectiveness of their vote can be a significant factor in engagement.

“If voters don’t feel like they can make a difference then they simply won’t vote,” Rottinghaus explained. “This is most important at the local level, where a lot of the decisions that get made really do affect you.”

Citizens feeling like their vote doesn’t matter, particularly the younger generation, is not just an issue here at home. According to recent polling from the New York Times, 48% of Americans surveyed between the ages of 18 and 29 said voting did not make a difference in how their government operates.

While many have been told the solutions for those who feel their voices aren’t being heard start with voting, Rottinghaus said there are structural issues making it more complicated than it seems.

“Saying ‘go out and vote’ is just cold comfort when it comes to the challenges people actually face when they go out and vote,” Rottinghaus said.

Rottinghaus highlighted recent statewide changes to election laws like limits on voting by mail. Another is Lubbock’s transition to voting centers. Lubbock did this more than 10 years ago. In the first year, the number of voting locations across Lubbock county was cut from 69 to 40, according to the post-elections report that followed November elections in 2009.

Vote centers allow citizens to cast ballots from any polling place in town on Election Day, even outside their precinct. At the time, supporters for the use of vote centers argued the convenience could increase turnout while saving the county money with fewer polling places to staff and equip.

“There are advantages, but we show that especially for Latinos, if you make the polling place farther away from where the person lives then they’re less likely to turn out,” Rottinghaus said. “That’s also true in the rural area. So really, the biggest impacts are people in rural areas and the Latino community.”

Adam Hernandez described this concern as a point of confusion when he spoke to Lubbock citizens.

“For instance, one of the big issues is that during early voting, it’s all Uniteds [Supermarkets]… You go there, you vote. That’s it. But then on election day, it’s no Uniteds,” Hernandez said. “People were going to the elections office, and the elections office was not a polling place. So it was really confusing.”  

Rottinghaus said his statewide research shows officials within the counties could do more to educate potential voters, but what these officials are able to do largely depends on timing and access to resources.

“There’s a lot of variation in terms of how counties handle this. But there are, surprisingly, an alarmingly high number of counties that don’t do much education,” Rottinghaus said. “So I’ll say this generically, that cities and counties usually don’t think about voter education until it’s too late.”

For now, Lubbock leaders are hoping that changing city council meeting times will get more people interested in the workings of local government. And more engaged citizens are more likely to vote.

Lubbock’s next election is in November, and there might be a local road bond measure on the ballot. The last day to register to vote in that election is Oct. 11. Visit the Lubbock County Elections Office for more information about registration and voting.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support local nonprofit journalism. Thanks for donating today.

Have a news tip? Email Sarah Self-Walbrick at saselfwa@ttu.edu. Follow her reporting on Twitter @SarahFromTTUPM.