Voter turnout refers to the percentage of eligible voters who vote in an election. Voting turnout rates in Texas, as with most of the South, are generally lower than the national average. Texas was ranked 44th for voter registration and 47th for voter turnout in 2018.
Patterns in voting turnout have changed over time. From the 1870s through the mid-1900s, most Texans voted in the Democratic primary, and primary elections had significantly higher turnout than they do today – in part because primary elections were the real political contests during that time, and in part because of the use of white primaries limited the voting-eligible population until 1944, when this practice was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. As Texas became a two-party state in the mid-1900s, however, general elections began to take on a more important role, and the gap in participation that previously existed between Democratic primaries and Republican primaries narrowed significantly.
When looking at voter turnout from recent elections, a few generalizations can be made:
- general elections tend to have higher turnout rates than primary elections (see charts below)
- general elections during presidential election years (i.e., 2000, 2004, 2008, etc.) have higher voter turnout than general elections during gubernatorial election years (i.e., 2002, 2006, 2010, etc.) (see charts below)
- voter turnout in primary elections varies from year to year (see charts below)
- noncandidate elections, such as elections to ratify constitutional amendments, have lower turnout than do most candidate elections
- runoff primary elections have extremely low voter turnout; on average, voter turnout in a runoff primary election is about two-thirds as high as turnout in the initial primary
Some argue that the rate of participation in elections is unimportant, based on the assumptions that:
- the preferences of those who vote are similar to those who do not vote, and
- nonvoters’ preferences are responsive to short-term factors (as opposed to partisanship or issue positions) and tend to disproportionately support the winning candidate
Others argue that nonvoters are clearly different from voters – they tend to be older and come from higher socioeconomic ranks in society. According to these arguments, broader participation not only in the form of higher overall voter turnout rates but also in increased turnout within groups that traditionally have lower voter turnout rates would increase popular sovereignty and political equality.
Regardless, when a majority of an electorate sits out an election, the entire governmental process may begin to lose legitimacy within society as a whole.
The Secretary of State’s office provides data on voter turnout and voter registration for Texas elections from 1970 through 2020.