“Everything’s bigger in Texas.”
That’s been an unofficial slogan for the Lone Star State for as long as I can remember, and it’s true in so many ways. We have the second-largest land mass of any state and the second-largest population. We have the 10th-largest economy in the world ahead of Australia and Russia.
However, there is one thing in Texas that isn’t that big: our voter turnout. And low voter turnout can have dire consequences, especially in local elections.
To see the detrimental effect low turnout can have on small communities, let’s look at an example outside of the Lone Star State. In 2005, the town of Bell, California, held a special local election to approve a newly written town charter that would allow the city to pass ordinances and make law for itself, instead of being limited by the state’s rules for smaller, general law cities. Of 36,000 residents, only 390 people voted: 334 for and 56 against.
The story is a familiar one. Publicity for the election was abysmal, and the issue was a complex, obscure one about which many felt they were uneducated. Because of that, most people chose to stay home, feeling they didn’t understand it enough to voice an opinion.
The devil was in the details. The city council’s draft of the proposed charter included exorbitant taxpayer-funded salaries topping $750,000 a year. The proposed election system for the city council was set up so that any one seat only really required about 300 votes for the incumbent to stay in power. As if to add insult to injury, the charter also authorized the city to charge its (largely economically disadvantaged) residents the highest property tax rates in the state.
Most of the city council members in Bell were eventually found guilty of fraud, but it is vital to understand the complicity of low-voter turnout in what happened. The council members understood they could count on voters to stay home; they exploited voters’ trust and took advantage of them with their implied consent. That’s the bottom line. When we choose not to engage in an election, we are still responsible for the result.
In Texas, November general elections in presidential election years, barely cross 50 percent of registered voters. But the vote you cast for president is, mathematically, the least impactful vote you can cast in a four-year period. Not only is it just one vote among tens of millions, it is impacting the level of government that, despite how the news cycle makes it appear, has the least influence on the quality of life you experience on a day-to-day basis.
County commissioners, city council members and mayors, on the other hand, make decisions on regulations dictating your quality of life: when and how your streets are paved, what kind of housing will be available, and what sort of bags you may use when shopping. Your school board determines the quality of education your children receive and sets the tax rate for more than half of your property bill – which you will pay whether or you have children in school.
All of these major decisions and more are made by fewer than a dozen people, and each one of the elections for these offices often turns on just a few votes. A small, tireless minority can swing a local election and, therefore, set policy for two to four years or more.
These local officials exercise enormous power over our lives, and these elections deserve as much, if not more, attention and scrutiny as the race for president of the United States.
So, in whatever city or community you live, find out who is running, look them up, decide whose values align with yours, and then — for the good of our communities — please vote.
State Rep. Terry Wilson represents District 20, which includes Burnet, Milam, and part of Williamson counties.