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Elections from a bygone era

All through the Early Voting period, I’ve been comparing turnout this year to elections from 2005 through 2009. It’s not like we didn’t have elections in this city before then, of course. Obviously, the city now is different than it was before, and as such I don’t know how much there is to learn from turnout levels in the 1990s. But given the concerns about poor turnout that some folks have expressed, I thought I’d take a look and see what’s there.

Year: 1993

Total votes cast: 214,306. No turnout figure is cited.

Mayoral votes cast: 186,944, or 87.2% of the citywide total. Bob Lanier, running for his first re-election against a squad of no-names, set the standard by which all future Mayors will be measured by garnering 90.10% of the vote.

Controller votes cast: 178,411, or 83.3% of the citywide total. George Greanias topped the field of four with 54.43% .

At Large votes cast: Ranged from 167,057 in the 12-candidate At Large #2 race (78.0% of citywide) to 157,974 in the 14-candidate (!) At Large #3 race (73.7%). Eleanor Tinsley led the former with 47.64%, while Lloyd Kelley at 18.26% and Cynthia Canales Gorczynski at 16.97% made it to the runoff in the latter. For those of you keeping score at home, a mere 26,822 votes were enough to make it into the finals in At Large #3. The top votegetter among all Council candidates, second only to MayorBob himself overall, was none other than Sheila Jackson Lee in At Large #4, with 103,866. How do you like that? She would defeat Craig Washington in the Democratic primary for CD18 in March, 1994, so this was her last Council election.

Familiar name: Orlando Sanchez finished fifth in a field of seven for the open District C seat, with 10.36% of the vote. He’d do better in his next election.

Special circumstances: Kids! You know that Houston is world-famous for being a city with no zoning, right? Well, did you know that we actually once voted on whether or not to impose some form of zoning on ourselves? It’s true! On the ballot in 1993 was a city proposition to allow for zoning ordinances. It failed, but by less than 7000 votes out of 168,009 ballots cast. It’s too long ago for me to remember the details, and I wasn’t paying much attention to it then. But it sure is a shame that there wasn’t an Internet back then to record everyone’s breathless utterance about it, so we could see what crazytimes it was, isn’t it? (Yes, I know there actually was an Internet back then. It was a lot smaller, and most of what was there isn’t easy to find nowadays. You know what I mean.)

Year: 1995

Total votes cast: 142,117, which is given as 13.88% turnout. It’s the only turnout figure on these result pages. This implies there were 1,023,898 registered voters in Houston at the time of this election. Let’s keep that number in mind for when the turnout figures are given for this year.

Mayoral votes cast: 126,081, or 88.7% of the citywide total. MayorBob dropped to a mere 82.66%, ahead of our old friend Dave Wilson in second place with 9.05%

Controller votes cast: 108,798, or 76.6% of the citywide total. Lloyd Kelley succeeded Greanias by winning a three-way race with 53.35% of the vote.

At Large votes cast: Ranged from 87,066 (61.3% of citywide) in At Large #1, where Gracie Saenz ran unopposed, to 114,036 (80.2%) in At Large #2, where Joe Roach easily cruised past two challengers with 73.35% of the vote. And proving that more candidates does not mean more votes, the 11-candidate pileup in At Large #3 drew only 97,961 votes. Among its other contenders were Chris Bell, who finished third with 14.17%, and Griff Griffin, who came in fourth with 10.31%. Like Orlando Sanchez, the eventual winner of this seat, Bell would do better in his next election. Unlike Orlando Sanchez, Griff would not.

Familiar name: Andrew Burks eked into a runoff in a seven-candidate District E race, finishing exactly eleven votes ahead of the third place contestant, and 20 votes ahead of fourth place. This is what they’re talking about when they say every vote matters, kids. He then got skunked in the runoff, losing to Rob Todd by a 63-37 spread.

Special circumstances: None. Total dullsville. Basically, 1995 was the 2007 of the 90s.

Year: 1997

Total votes cast: 348,680, in a wild eight-way open seat Mayoral free-for-all. Here we begin to get Harris County precinct data appended to the City Secretary reports, which includes turnout for the Houston portion of Harris County. For this election, it is given as 28.20%.

Mayoral votes cast: 313,123, or 89.8% of the citywide total. I think it’s safe to say we won’t match that total this year, though it would not shock me if the Mayoral share of total turnout is comparable. In the race, Lee Brown led the way with 132,324 votes, with Rob Mosbacher joining him in the runoff with 90,320. Round One also included former Controller George Greanias, who got squeezed between constituencies and finished third, and former Council members Gracie Saenz and Helen Huey.

Controller votes cast: 259,418, or 74.4% of the citywide total. Sylvia Garcia scored a clean win over Lloyd Kelley, 55.40% to 33.50% (there were three other candidates), becoming the first of so far only two challengers to defeat a sitting incumbent since term limits were adopted in 1994. (Jean Kelley, who inherited District G from her husband John in this election, would become the other such incumbent in 1999, losing to Bert Keller.)

At Large votes cast: Ranged from 226,382 (64.9%) in the nine-person At Large #5 race, eventually won by future HCC Trustee candidate Carroll Robinson, to 250,933 (72.0%) in At Large #2, where the late Joe Roach cruised past a single opponent and collected the high vote score for the cycle, with 190,841.

Familiar name: Annise Parker, who finished second in a seven-candidate race for At Large #1, then won in the runoff.

Special circumstances: The only open seat Mayor’s race of the 90s, as Bob Lanier had ousted incumbent Kathy Whitmire in 1991, and the genesis of the term “the Greanias line” for city election wonks. And if that wasn’t enough, a charter referendum to end affirmative action, which lost 55-45, and a bunch of bond referenda. Yeah, there were a few things pushing people to the polls that year.

Year: 1999

Total votes cast: 268,109. Turnout for the Houston portion of Harris County is given as 21.57%.

Mayoral votes cast: 206,778, or 77.1% of the citywide total. This was the infamous election in which one-term incumbent Mayor Lee Brown received only 67.29% of the vote against two no-chance opponents, Jack Terence (23.16%) and Outlaw Josey Wales, IV (9.55%, and no, I’m not kidding about the name), thus setting up the narrative that he was vulnerable to a challenge for 2001, and giving too many political pundits with too much time on their hands something to point to a decade hence.

Controller votes cast: 150,385, or 56.1% of the citywide total. Sylvia Garcia, having established herself as the first challenger to defeat an incumbent in the term limits era, established the tradiion of uncontested Controller races after that.

At Large votes cast: Two uncontested seats (#s 4 and 5, Chris Bell and Carroll Robinson), received 141,489 and 142,022 votes, respectively, each less than 53% of the citywide total. Three contested races had totals ranging from 174,774 (65.2%) in the 11-candidate At Large #2 race, in which Gordon Quan would go on to defeat Dwight Boykins in the runoff to 179,095 (66.8%) in At Large #3, where Orlando Sanchez won a 54-46 re-election against Andrew Burks, which somehow did not create a narrative that he too was electorally vulnerable.

Familiar name: Have I not given enough already? All right, Toni Lawrence made the first of two unsuccessful attempts to defeat Bruce Tatro in District A. She didn’t run in the open seat race in 1997 (Tatro defeated our old buddy Dave Wilson in the runoff), and eventually won the seat after Tatro got termed out.

Special circumstances: Four more city referenda, of which the one “relating to residency of elected officers” received the highest vote total of 194,543, which as you can see easily exceeded every city race other than the Mayoral. The other three ranged from 174,654 to 185,971 votes. As with the zoning referendum of 1993, I have no memory of what these were about, but they clearly helped drive turnout.

What do we learn from this? Well, other than the fact that certain characters have been recurring in our elections for a long time, it seems to me that a charter amendment is a pretty good way to drive turnout. Note how great the falloff is from the city vote totals to those of individual races, a factor that I have to believe is related to some people showing up only for the referenda. As such, I think that while we are correct to lament low turnout in city races, we should be careful about comparing our current elections to those of the 1990s, when turnout was superficially pretty high. Perhaps if the red light camera referendum had been on the 2009 ballot, or on this one, we’d be having a very different conversation about the turnout levels. Just something to think about. Hope you enjoyed this trip down somewhat-cloudy-memory lane.

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11 Comments

  1. Brad says:

    City of Houston headed for a pathetic 10% turnout tomorrow. Just pathetic.

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  3. Robert Nagle says:

    Wow, I totally forgot that we almost passed zoning . A real trip down memory lane.

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