Voting Behavior: The Basics

Voters make decisions based on their evaluations of the past and their expectations for the future.  Retrospective voting refers to voters choosing candidates based on their perception of an incumbent’s past performance in office or the performance of the incumbent’s party, approving the status quo or signaling a desire for change.  Retrospective voting can take on one of two forms:

  • Pocketbook voting – pocketbook evaluations are made on a personal level; voters ask the incumbent candidate, “What have you done for me lately?”
  • Sociotropic voters – sociotropic evaluations are made on a societal level; voters ask the incumbent candidate, “What have you done for the nation lately?”

Prospective voting refers to voters evaluating the incumbent officeholder and the incumbent’s party based on their expectations of future developments.

Voter behavior is also influenced by candidate characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, region, and personality, and where a candidate stands on various policy issues.

Cost of Voting’s Impact on Voting Behavior

There is a high cost associated with being knowledgeable of where candidates for various local, state, and federal elected offices stand on several policy issues.  The long ballot further intensifies these costs by placing the direct selection of numerous local and state officials in the hands of the voters.  Ballots are especially long in Texas’s urban counties.  While the long ballot allows for more direct popular influence in government, which fits well into Texas political culture, it increases the cost of voting.

Because the costs of becoming an informed voter are high, voters often use decision-making shortcuts, called heuristics, to cut down on the costs associated with making rational decisions (i.e., where the candidates stand on the issues).

The most commonly used heuristic is party identification.  Voters often cast votes for candidates they know little about based on their party affiliation on the ballot.  For this reason, party identification is a strong predictor of voting behavior in Texas elections.  This can be problematic in partisan judicial elections because party identification does not always clearly translate into how a judicial candidate will decide in different types of cases.

Another heuristic that voters rely on is name recognition.  Name recognition helps contribute to the incumbency advantage; however, it can help out non-incumbents, as well.  For example, Governor O’Daniel had broad name recognition thanks to his popular radio broadcast.  There have been times when Texans have even elected candidates whose names were similar to the names of more well-known federal politicians.

Causes of Low Voter Turnout

Non-Holiday, Weekday Elections

“The structure of the voting process—including the days before Election Day required to register, vote by mail, or early voting—has been shown to be an important effect on aggregate level turnout.” Cortina and Rottinghaus, 2019

In many other democratic countries, elections are held on weekends or are national holidays.  Elections in Texas (and in the U.S. in general), however, fall on weekdays and are not recognized as national holidays.

Early voting (allowing voters to cast their ballots prior to election day) and absentee voting (where a voter does not have to be physically present to cast a ballot) can help decrease the costs associated with voting because they provide voters with alternative options to voting on election day.  Texas utilizes early voting and absentee voting by mail.

State Laws Regulating the Electorate

Regulating the electorate refers to the process by which the rules of election are set to make it easier to or harder to vote.  States may regulate the electorate by enacting laws regarding voter registration rules, voter identification requirements, and voting locations.  State laws that are thought to reduce the costs of voting, thereby making it easier to vote, are thought to result in higher voter turnout, whereas states laws that make it more difficult to vote often produce lower voter turnout.  Research supports this conclusion for the most part, although research on voting locations is mixed: although research has traditionally suggested that geographic location of polling places affects voter turnout, Cortines and Rottinghaus (2019) found that “the impacts [of centralized voting centers] on voting may be non-uniform and may positively affect turnout in locations or elections where turnout is somewhat likely or counties are smaller (where voters are more likely to be homogeneous).”

The figure below illustrates the ease of voting in different states based on cost of voting index values during the 2016 election.  According to this study, Texas is ranked 46th out of 50th.  During that same election, Texas ranked 48th out of 51 (50 states + District of Columbia) in voter turnout.

Cost of voting in states, 2016SOURCE: NIU Newsroom, Northern Illinois University, 2018

Voter Fatigue

As we discussed previously, Texas has a lot of elections, and Texans directly elect a lot of public officials.  The frequency of our elections, combined with our use of the long ballot, can result in voter fatigue, which can have a negative impact on voter turnout.  Straight-ticket voting (when voters are given the ability to cast their ballots for candidates of only one party – generally with a single selection on the ballot) can reduce voter fatigue and roll-off (when voters do not make a selection for every contest on the ballot).  As you may suspect based on our discussion of voting behavior, when voters are given the opportunity to utilize straight-ticket voting, they will (party identification is the most heavily relied on heuristic, after all).

Straight-ticket voting is not without its critics.  Some argue that straight-ticket voting in Texas works against the rationale of using long ballots because voters may simply select one box without reviewing the candidates running for specific office, raising questions about whether these are informed voting choices.  The straight-ticket “one-punch-and-you’re-done” approach can also result in voters inadvertently skipping items on the ballot that correspond to noncandidate elections or nonpartisan elections.

“Texas Republican lawmakers championed a change to the law during the 2017 legislative session, arguing it would compel voters to make more-informed decisions because they would have to make a decision on every race on a ballot” (Samuels, 2020).  Even though many states do not allow state-ticket voting, the decision to eliminate this option came under challenge from members of the Democratic party, who filed a lawsuit to block the removal of straight-ticket voting from Texas ballots.  “Less than three weeks before early voting [began] in Texas, a U.S. district court . . . blocked the state from eliminating straight-ticket voting as an option” (Samuels, 2020).

Attitude Changes

Political efficacy refers to citizens’ faith and trust in government and their belief that they can understand and influence political affairs.  Theoretically, the higher the political efficacy of an electorate, the higher voting turnout will be among that electorate.  Political efficacy is relatively low in the U.S.:

“When asked which statement comes closer to their own views, most Americans (58%) say that “voting gives people like me some say about how government runs things,” while fewer (39%) say “voting by people like me doesn’t really affect how government runs things.”

The public is somewhat more skeptical when it comes to the ability of ordinary citizens to influence the government in Washington. Half (50%) say ordinary citizens can do a lot to influence the government in Washington, if they are willing to make the effort, while about as many (47%) say there’s not much ordinary citizens can do to influence the government.” (Pew Research Center, 2015)

Partisanship, or belief in and affiliation with a political party, also impacts voting turnout.  Partisanship can increase voting turnout because it is rooted in group attachment, which can serve as a powerful motivator to engage in behavior that is anticipated or viewed favorably by the group (i.e., voting for party candidates) and reduces the costs associated with decision-making by providing a mental shortcut when voting for candidates.  Although polarization and hyperpartisanship are present in our current political system, party identification has decreased over time (see Party-in-the-Electorate).

Rationality of Voting

Downs’s economic theory of voting, also referred to as Downs’s paradox or the voting paradox, asks whether it is rational to vote.  Down’s paradox can be represented by the equation:

R = B – C

Where R represents a rational vote to choice, B represents benefits of voting, and C represents costs of voting

If the benefits outweigh the costs of voting, the individual makes a rational decision to vote.  If, however, the costs outweigh the benefits, the individual makes a rational decision to not vote.

For some, not voting may be the rational choice.  Voting is an activity with virtually no gratification.  The costs of voting will likely outweigh the benefits if there is a lack of attractive choices in candidates for office and/or if there is too much complexity in the voting process (locating polling place; waiting in line; length of ballot; etc.).

The video below explores Downs’ paradox in more detail.

Other Causes of Low Turnout

Other causes of low turnout in the U.S. include:

  • decreasing general voter mobilization by political parties (particularly at the local-levels of the party organization)
  • a decline in social connectedness, or how well people are integrated into the society in which they live
  • generational changes

Voter Turnout in Texas

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 primaryVoting turnout rates as a percentage of registered voters in Texas primary and general elections, 2000-2020Voting turnout rates as a percentage of registered voters in Texas primary elections, 2000-2020

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.

Voter Eligibility & Registration

Voter eligibility refers to the members of a population who are eligible to vote.  When it comes to voter eligibility, the federal government has created a general framework and basic requirements.  Recall, however, that conducting elections is considered a reserved power of the state.  As such, states are allowed to incorporate additional requirements, so long as they do not violate federal laws, including (but not limited to) the 15th amendment (guarantees suffrage for African American males), the 19th amendment (guarantees suffrage for females), the 26th amendment (guarantees suffrage for 18-20 year olds), and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Federal Voter Requirements

  • U.S. citizen
  • At least 18 years old
  • Are registered in the state in which you plan to vote, if registration is required (fun fact: North Dakota does not require voter registration)

Texas Voter Requirements

  • Resident of the county in which you plan to vote
  • Not a convicted felon
    • This only applies while serving a sentence; eligibility to vote is legally reinstated once person’s sentence is complete, although barriers often still exist
  • Not declared mentally incapacitated by a court of law
  • Registered to vote
  • Required to present an acceptable for of photo ID (the federal law Help America Vote Act requires voter ID, but its requirements are less strict than those enacted by the state)

Removing Barriers to Registration: Motor Voter Act

In 1993, the U.S. Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (also known as the Motor Voter Act), which removed barriers in voting registration within the states by requiring states to:

  • allow people to register to vote up to thirty days before a federal primary or general election
  • provide individuals with the opportunity to register to vote when applying for or renewing a driver’s license
  • allow individuals to register to vote by mail to participate in federal elections

Money & Elections

Campaign spending varies greatly across different positions within an election and between election cycles.  Nevertheless, there are some general trends that we can identify in campaign spending:

  • campaign fundraising and spending for the major parties significantly outpaces that of minor parties
  • candidates tend to spend more money on campaigns for offices associated with “swing” districts in which there is a good chance that either major party could win the election
  • competitive races are often linked to higher campaign spending than open races
  • campaign spending for elections in urban areas tends to outpace that for elections in rural areas
  • at-large elections tend to cost more than single-member district elections; a candidate who is interested in running for an at-large state office (such as an office in the plural executive) needs to raise at least $20 million, whereas a candidate running for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives may only need to raise $400,000- $550,000 (Samuels, 2017)
  • federal elections cost more than most state elections
  • the cost of campaigns continues to rise

Money is necessary to pay for campaign staff, political consultants, and advertising.  Most campaign spending is on advertisements in media (including traditional media – TV, newspapers, etc. – and, more recently, social media).  As explained in the video below, however, what kind of spending is allowed has expanded to include political activities not directly related to a candidate’s election or re-election.

Source of Campaign Financing

Campaign financing includes:

  • hard money, or campaign funds donated directly to candidates, which are limited by federal election laws; and
  • soft money, or unregulated campaign contributions by individuals, groups, or parties that promote general election activities but do not directly support individual candidates

There are very few sources of campaign contributions in Texas elections.  Sources for hard money donations in most state and local races are relatively limited: for example, in 2002, 48 wealthy families supplied more than half of the hard money contributions raised by the Republican candidates for state office.  Soft money campaign spending in Texas comes from various interest groups, including corporations, professional associations, and political action committees (PACs), which are organizations that raise money privately to spend on influencing campaigns.  Candidates can also fund their campaigns with their own wealth.

Campaign Finance Laws

Texas state election laws require full disclosure of “significant contributions” (i.e., contributions exceeding $50).  When it comes to limitations on campaign contributions or campaign expenditures, however, the law is inconsistent:

  • no limits are placed on campaign contributions or campaign expenditures for candidates for executive or legislative office
  • individual donations in judicial campaigns are limited to $5,000 or less (based on the size of the jurisdiction); while there are no mandatory spending limits for judicial campaigns, state law does create a system of voluntary spending limits that judicial candidates can agree to accept

Does Money Talk?

Campaign donations and spending can play a role in electoral outcomes.  The largest single item in any campaign budget is media; the more money a campaign has at its disposal, the more it can engage in outreach to attract and mobilize voters in support of the candidate.  With that being said, the relationship between electoral success and money is complex, and more money does not guarantee electoral success:

“Some of the most expensive campaigns were run by people you have probably never heard of. In some cases, a candidate entering a general election contest with better name recognition or the right party affiliation for that district doesn’t have to spend much money at all.” (Samuels, 2017)

Research has indicated that when it comes to campaign spending, the law of diminishing returns may apply.

One area in which money does tend to effectively talk is policymaking.  Interest groups, political action committees, corporations, and individuals may donate to a candidate in response to that candidate’s view of certain public policy issues and/or support of certain public policy solutions.  These donations, in turn, can result in increased access to that official (if elected), which can increase the role of lobbying in policymaking.

Political Campaigns: The Basics

A political campaign is an attempt to get information to voters that will persuade them to elect a candidate or not elect an opponent.  All political campaigns – regardless of the candidate or party they support – have two main goals: (1) to reach voters with information about their candidate; and (2) to get voters to show up and vote for their candidate at the polls by engaging in voter mobilization or GOTV (get out the vote) efforts.

Political campaigns vary greatly in size and intensity.  Campaigns in swing districts such as Texas Senate District 10 in Fort Worth usually have larger campaigns than campaigns in districts that heavily support one major party over the other, such as Texas House District 11, which includes Cherokee, Nacogdoches, and Rusk counties.

Successful political campaigns generally have a professional campaign organization, money to finance advertising, travel, and other campaign-related expenses, name recognition and a favorable impression for the candidate, unfavorable impressions of the opponents, and mechanisms that encourage supporters to go to the polls.

Campaign Strategies

Most political campaigns adopt one or more of the following campaign strategies when developing their campaign’s message:

  1. party-centered strategy, which focuses on the values of the candidate’s political party and why voters should support those values
  2. issue-oriented strategy, which focuses on a particular issue or set of issues
  3. image-oriented strategy, which focuses on the candidate’s image and portrays the candidate as able to rise above partisan considerations to tackle issues facing the citizens that the candidate would represent

Despite polls demonstrating that most voters do not respond well to negative advertisements and messages, modern campaigns – whether they are federal, state, or local – increasingly rely on mudslinging and negative messages about opponents as part of their campaign strategy, in large part because other polls demonstrate that using negative advertisements and messages influences undecided voters.

Campaign Phases

Political campaigns consist of two phases: primary campaigns, during which members of the party-in-the-electorate determine who the candidate for a particular political party will be among a list of potential nominees, and general election campaigns, during which members of the electorate vote on who they would like to represent them in an elected office.

These different phases require appealing to different voters, which in turn necessitates different sets of strategies (summarized below).

Primary Campaigns

  • Target Voters:  members of the party-in-the-electorate
  • Campaign Strategies:  
    1. Focus on issue positions
    2. Seek to increase visibility and name recognition

General Election Campaigns

  • Target voters:  Eligible voters
  • Campaign Strategies:
    1. Persuade independent and undecided voters to choose their candidate, often by focusing on policy issues of the major candidates
    2. Mobilize voter turnout within the party base and among independent and undecided voters who may vote for the candidate

Advertising spikes during the general elections, in part because of the general election campaign strategy of swaying voters with information about the candidates and trying to mobilize people to vote in the election, and in part because shadow campaigns, or campaigns run by PACs and other organizations without coordination with or guidance from candidates, air negative advertisements to reach voters during the general election phase.

Elections: The Basics

The U.S. has more elections than any other democratic nation, with the electorate (voting-eligible population) expected to vote for candidates seeking election to local, state, and federal offices that have fixed terms of office.  This is especially true in Texas, where voters directly elect numerous federal, state, and local officials to represent us.

Elections are essential in democratic governments because they serve as the principal means by which popular sovereignty and majority rule are supposed to work.  Substantive representation posits that elections serve as a correspondence mechanism between the electorate and elected officials, allowing elected officials to represent their constituents’ beliefs, ideas, values, and preferences.  The extent to which elections ensure that governments will do what the people want depends on various factors, including (but not limited to) campaigning and voting behavior.

Election Systems: At-Large vs. Single Member District

Texas voters select public officials to serve in state government using a combination of at-large and district elections.

At-large elections are used to select members of a governing body who are elected to represent the whole membership of the body (which may be a city, county, state, or country), rather than a subset of that membership.   In at-large elections, every citizen of a political subdivision (i.e., state, county, city, special district) votes for public officials to fill seats that are up for election.

At-large elections are used in Texas to select:

  • U.S. Senators
  • most of the offices in the plural executive that we discussed earlier in this course (governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller of public accounts, land commissioner, etc.)
  • judges serving on the Texas Supreme Court and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (statewide) or in other state courts (at-large within the judicial district)
  • some local government offices, such as county constitutional court judge and mayor

In single-member district elections, a geographic area is divided into separate districts, each of which has one elected representative, and voters within these districts vote for the candidate they would prefer to represent them in government.  Voters can identify which voting precinct and districts they live in by looking at their voting registration certificates.  Drawing election districts is a political process, and redistricting sometimes results in gerrymandering.

Image of Texas voter registration certificate
Sample Voter Registration Certificate.  From Waller County Elections

Single-member district elections are used to select:

  • members of the U.S. House of Representatives
  • state representatives serving in the Texas House of Representatives
  • state senators serving in the Texas Senate
  • members of various executive boards and commissions, including the State Board of Education
  • some local government offices, including county commissioners and justices of the peace

Competitive Seats vs. Open Seats

Competitive seats are election races in which challengers run against incumbents, or current officeholders (example: M.J. Hegar challenging incumbent John Cornyn in the 2020 senate race).  Incumbents are more likely to win competitive seat election races than their challengers.  This phenomenon is known as the incumbency advantageOpen seats, in contrast, are election races in which no incumbent is running for reelection (example: 2014 gubernatorial election, when neither Greg Abbott nor Wendy Davis was the incumbent).

Types of Elections in Texas

Primary Elections

In Texas, political parties coordinate primary elections to select their candidates for elected offices through primary elections and caucuses coordinated by party organizations.  In primary elections, voters choose convention delegates committed to voting for a certain candidate.  There are three different kinds of primary elections:

  • closed primaries, in which only voters registered with a party may vote for that party’s candidates
  • open primaries, in which any registered voter may vote in any party’s primary
  • top-two primary, in which the two candidates with the most votes, regardless of party, become the nominees for the general election

Political parties in Texas use a hybrid primary system that is a cross between an open primary and a closed primary to select nominees for the general election: on primary election day, voters must publicly choose the party in whose primary they wish to participate.

Primary elections are majority elections; to become the party’s candidate for an office, a candidate must obtain the majority of the votes in the primary election (at least 50% + 1 vote).  If no candidate receives a majority of the votes, a runoff election between the top two candidates will be held.

Primary elections in Texas take place on the first Tuesday in March of even-numbered years.  Runoff elections occur on the first Tuesday in April, following the primary election.

General Elections

General elections are used to fill national and state offices.  In the general election, voters choose between candidates for each of the major parties (and, when applicable, candidates from minor parties or independent candidates with no party affiliation).  General elections are plurality elections; whichever candidate receives the most votes wins the election.  Note that “most” is not the same as “majority” in theory — in practice, however, whoever wins the election usually receives the majority of the votes because minor parties do not fare well in Texas.

General elections are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of even-numbered years.

Other Elections

There are several other types of elections in Texas, including:

  • local elections for city, school district, and special district officials; these are usually nonpartisan elections (i.e., candidates are not affiliated with a political party) and are usually held on odd-numbered years so they do not coincide with general elections
  • special elections called outside of the normal election calendar (ex: to approve local bond issues; to fill unexpected gaps in the state legislature; etc.)
  • noncandidate elections, which include:
    1. bond elections, or elections to obtain voter approval for a local government going into debt
    2. local option (wet-dry) elections, which are used to determine whether an area will legalize the sale of alcoholic beverages
    3. constitutional amendment elections, which allow voters the opportunity to ratify constitutional amendments with a majority vote
    4. recall elections*, which allow voters to remove elected officials from office before the end of their term
    5. initiative process*, through which citizens can propose legislation by gathering a certain number of signatures on a petition
    6. referendum*, in which citizens can oppose existing legislation by gathering a certain number of signatures on a petition

*Note that while many Texas cities provide for initiative, referendum, and recall, the state of Texas (i.e., our state government) does not.