Viridiana Moreno heard the message for years.
It’s important to vote. Your voice matters. And if you stay home, you only boost the impact of those who head to the polls.
But she was intimidated.
“I felt I was scared and shy to get involved in such a big thing,” the 23-year-old Fort Worth woman said. “I always thought about voting but I never did it.”
Moreno became a U.S. citizen two years ago.
Now, frustrated by political developments ranging from DACA to sanctuary cities, the pre-med student at Texas Wesleyan is ready for her voice to be heard.
“There’s so many things going on,” Moreno said. “I can’t reiterate how important voting is now. This is the most powerful tool we can use to find our justice.”
Moreno — one of the more than 15 million Texans registered to vote — will head to the polls for the first time for the March 6 primary.
Election officials emphasize that they hope even more Texans register to vote and actually cast ballots this year.
Last year, 77 percent of eligible Texans were registered to vote, but less than 6 percent of them turned out for the constitutional amendment election in November.
In 2016, during the last presidential election, 78 percent of voting-aged Texans were registered to vote but less than 60 percent cast ballots.
Historically, the state has ranked among the lowest in the nation in turnout.
“Obviously, voting is a constitutional right, but it’s also a privilege,” Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos said. “It’s a chance to have a voice in the conversation, a seat at the table.”
“If we squander that, we do not have a voice,” he said. “Every vote matters.”
The deadline to register to vote is Feb. 5.
Early voting for the primary election runs from Feb. 20-March 2.
Pablos said he wants to see more Texans registered and voting.
“Seventy-seven percent is commendable, but I’d like to see it higher,” he said. “We need to get everybody out.”
There have been higher voter registration numbers, with lower turnout percentages, between 1998 and 2002.
The 2000 general election — when Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush faced off against Democrat Al Gore for the White House — drew the largest percentage of registered Texas voters, at 85 percent, according to a review of state voter registration and turnout records since 1970.
But even then, only 51 percent of registered voters cast ballots in that election.
“Texas brags about a place where everything is bigger, but that does not include voter turnout,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
One key to turning that around, may be teaching the importance of voting to younger Texans, Pablos said.
“We are trying to foster a tradition of voting,” he said, referring to an effort to encourage high school principals and superintendents to boost efforts to let young voters register at high schools. “I think a key step is getting them to understand primaries and how important they are in the process.
“The underlying opportunity is to get everyone, especially our kids, in the tradition of voting and making it part of their civic duties.”
Cameron Leavell, a senior at Plano West Senior High, turned 18 this month and he plans to vote in the March primary election.
He’s not sure yet whether he will vote in the Republican or Democratic primary, because he wants to make sure his vote counts the most.
Leavell said he began tuning in to politics after the 2016 presidential election and has followed some races across the country, including those for the U.S. Senate seat in Alabama and the 6th Congressional District in Georgia.
He said he knows the only way to make his voice heard is to vote.
“It’s my responsibility to inform myself and do something if I don’t like what’s happening,” he said. “Voting is taking a stand.”
Unfortunately, he said he realizes many don’t take advantage of that opportunity. And he hopes that will change.
“I feel for a long time the United States has been in many wars trying to spread democracy, but at the same time, a lot of our citizens don’t [exercise that right],” Leavell said. “That’s the responsibility of being a citizen.”
A lost opportunity?
Many people turn out only for the big votes — the November elections where final decisions are made in races for the governor, Congress, Legislature or the White House.
But the primary elections earlier in the year are when voters have the chance to look at multiple candidates within the same party and choose which one they’d like to move on to the November election.
“Voters are more likely to participate when they believe their vote can make a difference,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. “Most Texas races are effectively decided in either the Republican or Democratic primaries, with the general election actually ‘mattering’ in only a handful of races on most voters’ ballots.”
Texans may vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary election, even if it’s different from the one they voted in the last time they headed to the polls.
“Exercise your right to vote,” Roderick Miles, coordinator of the parade for the Greater Fort Worth Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Committee, encouraged North Texans recently. “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.”
But there was a lot of complaining in Texas last year, when the Republican-led state Legislature weighed in on issues such as tree ordinances, property tax relief, an immigration enforcement law geared to eliminate “sanctuary” cities and a so-called bathroom bill that would dictate which restrooms transgender Texans could use.
And there was a lot of complaining about Congress last year when members considered issues ranging from revamping the Affordable Care Act to passing a new tax plan.
“Low turnout allows small and organized groups to have a disproportionate impact on public policy in Texas,” Rottinghaus said. “Not voting means someone else has ... more power to select leaders than you have.”
So anyone who doesn’t vote not only loses the ability to help choose lawmakers but also also the issues they might address.
Just recently, a new effort — the North Texas Advocacy Coalition — was created to corral the business community into putting a “business-friendly voice in Austin” for the 2019 session.
The coalition is urging business leaders and those in the community to vote in the March primary elections and support business-friendly candidates.
“North Texans need to participate in elections that will ultimately impact the region (from) the start,” the group stated. “Learn why March Matters and how to encourage Texans to vote in 2018.”
Some say issues such as the state’s Voter ID law — or the fact that Texans need to register to vote at least a month before Election Day — might keep voters home from the polls.
In Texas, voters don’t register with an affiliation to a political party. They just register to vote. But anyone who wants to vote in the primary election must register by Feb. 5.
When heading to the polls, take your voter registration card and a photo ID to the polls. The seven state-approved photo IDs are Texas drivers license, Texas Election Identification Certificate, Texas personal identification card, Texas license to carry a concealed handgun, U.S. military ID card with photo, U.S. citizenship certificate with photo and U.S. passport.
Anyone who doesn’t have one of those IDs, and can’t get one before voting, may show another form of identification and fill out a “reasonable impediment declaration.”
“Voters are either confused by the laws or do not believe they have the proper identification, so they simply choose to not vote,” Rottinghaus said.
There’s other confusion as well.
Rosa Maria Ortega, for instance, had a green card and believed she had the right to vote.
But the Grand Prairie mother of four last year was sentenced by a Tarrant County jury to eight years in prison after being convicted on two felony counts of illegal voting in Dallas County in 2012 and 2014.
“I just wanted people to hear my voice,” she said after her conviction. “But I really didn’t think I was doing anything wrong.”
Her case is under appeal in the Second District Court of Appeals in Fort Worth.
‘Don’t be scared’
As for Moreno, who gained U.S. citizenship two years ago, she’s registered and ready to vote.
She’s going to learn about the candidates on the March 6 primary ballot and what they stand for, so when she heads to the polls she will know who she wants to support.
“We need to stop being complacent,” she said. “I will vote in person and I’m excited. I feel this is a new experience.
“I can’t wait to wear my ‘I voted’ sticker.”
She said she knows there are countless people like her, who simply haven’t voted for one reason or another.
“I keep telling them it’s OK and our voices matter,” Moreno said. “People should bring their families to vote with them and inform them.”
“Politics can be a little bit cool sometimes,” she said. “Don’t be scared. Just go and choose who you want to represent you.”
How to register to vote?
In Texas, voters don’t register with an affiliation to a political party. They just register to vote.
Anyone who wants to vote in the primary election must register to vote by Feb. 5.
Forms to register or update voter names or addresses can be found at libraries or post offices or online.
Not sure if you are registered to vote? You can check that out here.