Fort Worth

Why is voter turnout so low? Fort Worth mayoral candidates say they know why

Fort Worth mayoral candidates debate at TCU forum

Fort Worth incumbent Mayor Betsy Price debates with challengers Deborah Peoples and James McBride at a TCU forum Monday, April 29, 2019. The candidates discuss their platforms and debate the merits of the Panther Island project.
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Fort Worth incumbent Mayor Betsy Price debates with challengers Deborah Peoples and James McBride at a TCU forum Monday, April 29, 2019. The candidates discuss their platforms and debate the merits of the Panther Island project.

Unless a record number of voters head to the polls Saturday, Fort Worth likely won’t see a big increase in turnout.

Candidates for mayor say they know why engagement is low locally. At Monday night’s TCU mayoral forum their answers to historically low voter turnout varied but their message was the same — more should be done to stress the importance of local elections.

Fort Worth’s voter turnout was about 8 percent for the mayoral election in 2017. That’s better than a Portland State study that showed Dallas and Fort Worth tied for lowest turnout at about 6 percent of eligible voters, but not as high as the more than 10 percent of voters who cast ballots in 2011, the year Mayor Betsy Price was elected.

Price said even though turnout dropped during her time in office, the city has worked hard to engage the public. She touted bilingual town hall-style meetings and Steer Fort Worth, a young professionals group.

The issue, she said, was with a lack of focus on local issues in the classroom.

“I think part of the problem is public schools aren’t teaching civic engagement,” she said.

Political newcomer and mayoral candidate James McBride called voter turnout in Fort Worth “very sad” and said many, especially young voters, weren’t informed about the importance of local elections. The media is too focused on national issues, he said.

“I think if the media would get more behind things and get a fire going, we’d have better turnout,” McBride said.

Deborah Peoples, chairwoman of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, criticized established leaders, like Price, saying they had done little to boost civic engagement. Voters in local elections tend to be older than 55, but Peoples said younger residents should have more say.

“We have leaders who don’t want people to come out and vote because they know a low voter turnout favors them,” she said.

Early turnout was on track to be similar to past years’ Tuesday.

Just before 5 p.m., 46,571, or about 4.21 percent of registered voters, had cast ballots in Tarrant County elections, which include Arlington and the suburbs.

Though early voting polls closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday, the numbers appear in line with the last election. In 2017, 48,478 voters went to the polls during early voting.

Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a politics professor at UNT, said the cause for low voter turnout is likely a combination of things.

While people may care about street repair, property taxes and job creation — the things that council members can control — it’s hard for local candidates to demonstrate why the election matters. Voters tend to be topic-minded, so unless a candidate can rally around a controversial issue, it’s hard to engage large numbers in local races.

Civic programs, like forums and voter registration drives, can increase turnout, he said. Another option is to move the local race to November with federal and state elections.

“If there’s one day, people can focus on that and remember that,” Eshbaugh-Soha said. “But there’s tradeoffs. The vocal voices could be washed out by national politics.”

Monday’s forum, organized by Emily M. Farris, a TCU assistant professor of political science, was the first to feature both Price and Peoples and drew a large crowd to TCU’s Brown Lupton University Union.

Farris said the forum was meant to encourage voters, not just those who attended but also her students. Even those majoring in political science tend to be more focused on national issues, she said, but organizing the forum had taught them the value hometown politics.

“It’s been exciting to see these students care about local elections,” she said.

Anna Baggs, a 19-year-old Fort Worth native who recently transferred to TCU from Fordham University in New York City, said she believed young people were engaging more, especially on national issues. That may not translate to higher local election turnout for a couple reasons, she said.

Younger voters, especially college-age voters, are more likely to move and may not register to vote. They’re also more likely to not pay property taxes and may not realize the impact local leaders have on such things.

Regardless, campaign messaging hasn’t targeted young voters and even older residents appear disconnected from local elections, she said.

“I as a whole Fort Worth needs to be more energized around politics,” she said. “Candidates are putting up signs, so we definitely know it’s election season, but most people aren’t thinking about it.”

Baggs said she will vote Saturday.

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.
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