Texans don’t vote. With the exception of a decade or so between 1994 and 2002, when the flight of the state’s Dixiecrats into the Republican Party was in its final phase, Texas has never had competitive elections. Like the other Deep South slave republics, Texas operated from its earliest days under monolithic one-party rule by Democrats until they switched sides. Since then the state has continued its tradition of single party rule under a different brand. In a state where the government doesn’t do anything and there’s no partisan competition for offices, voting is generally a waste of time.
It should come as no surprise that Texas always ranks near the bottom in voter participation. Those numbers get even more stark when you look beyond Presidential elections. Fewer than 10% of eligible Texas voters participate in primary elections. Turnout on the Republican side is consistently around 7%, with about 3% of eligible voters showing up to a Democratic Primary.
As early voting in Texas’ March 6th primary comes to an end, Democratic turnout has nearly doubled from 2014. On the Republican side, turnout is up only 17% from 2014, and down from 2016. These numbers seem consistent with the roughly 15% swing toward Democrats we’ve seen in special elections across the country since Trump’s victory, but does primary turnout really tell us anything about potential results in November? Maybe. Maybe not.
Turnout in the 2008 Democratic Primary in Texas was up more than 400% from the prior Presidential election cycle. At an overall voter participation mark of 16%, it remains the highest turnout for a primary election in Texas from either party since the 70’s. That surge of interest translated into nothing in November, as McCain easily defeated Obama in the state.
What we’ve never seen in Texas is a surge in primary turnout from the party out of power in an off-year election. Even in the watershed year of ’94, the only hint we saw of the coming wave was Republicans closing the gap in voter participation slightly. In statewide elections, serious Democratic candidates generally lose to Republicans by about a 9 point swing. That sounds daunting, until you look at the raw numbers, and the structure of the system. Turnout among eligible voters in Texas off-year elections ranges between about a quarter and a third. Eligible voter turnout hasn’t approached half in the fifty years that Texas has published the statistic. Texans don’t vote, until one day they do.
In a one-party system, turnout is concentrated among members of the ruling party. The composition of the non-voting bloc is heavily weighted against the ruling party. Demographics of Texas’ non-voters indicate that they are overwhelmingly urban, less religious, young, and disproportionately non-white, especially Asian. Turnout among younger voters is a particularly important figure. Their raw numbers are impressive, as they’ve become the largest bloc of the population, now outnumbering the Baby Boomers. And this younger voting bloc is entering the age at which participation rates begin to climb, around 30. If Texans registered and voted at rates similar to a median turnout state, Clinton would have beaten Trump there. All it would take to flip Texas now is to raise voter participation to normal, national rates.
Southern governments have been organized for almost two hundred years to suppress voting. If their techniques ever fail they face an avalanche of resistance. A surge of Democratic turnout in the Texas primary is interesting, though not necessarily indicative of any looming shift. However, taken in the context of the wider national pivot away from the GOP, and the demographic trends in the state’s population, we might be seeing a shift in the landscape. A purple Texas would be the end of the Republican Party as a national force, with serious implications for local governments across the South. It’s too early to take such an outcome for granted, but the rise of younger generation increasingly hostile to conservative ideas seems to make it inevitable at some point.