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My thoughts following the 2017 election

1. Turnout in Houston was considerably higher than anyone predicted. Adding in Fort Bend to Harris yields 101,178 voters. Harris County had 149,730. The Houston share of Harris County was 66.43%, which is lower than I expected as well.

2. Early voting in odd years is not the same as early voting in even years. In even years, a significant majority of voters are showing up before Election Day. In odd years, Election Day still reigns supreme. In Harris County, 59.49% of the total vote was cast on Election Day. For the Houston part of Harris County, that total was 58.74% of the vote. It’s not clear to me why this is the case, but if I had to guess I’d say that the presence of big well-funded campaigns is a big part of the reason people vote early, because they are being told to vote during the early process. In the absence of such campaigns, people don’t think about voting before Election Day nearly as much. Just a guess, but one that will inform how I think about the next odd year election.

3. After the 2015 election, the HISD Board of Trustees had four men and five women. After the 2017 election, it will have one man and eight women. It will also be all Democratic, as the three Republican men who served in districts V, VI, and VII have all been succeeded by Democratic women. Let that sink in for a minute.

4. A lot will be said about the national election results and what that means for Democrats and Republicans going into 2018. We haven’t really had an election that has been cast in that light – unlike the 2015/2016 cycle, for example, there have been no special legislative elections. I think you have to look at the 2017 HISD results as a piece of that puzzle, even if they weren’t run as Dem-versus-GOP referenda. The Democratic candidates won the three formerly Republican-held Trustee seats because more Democrats showed up to vote. I don’t want to over-dramatize that, but it has to mean at least a little something.

5. Of course, if one wants to be cynical, it could mean that the TEA will have more reason to drop the hammer on HISD if one or more of the Improvement Required schools fails to meet standards. Who at the state level will care about disbanding an all-Democratic Board of Trustees?

6. In the runup to Tuesday, the lower-than-usual turnout projections were cited as a reason why the city bond issues might have trouble. This was going to be a weird year with no city elections, and Harvey caused a lot of disruption, but the main piece of logic underpinning that was the assumption that lower turnout = a more Republican electorate, which in turn would be dangerous for the bonds. Remember, while no one officially opposed the pension bonds, the Harris County GOP and associated conservative groups did oppose the other bonds. It turned out there was no cause for alarm, as all the issues passed by huge margins. While I think that Republicans were more favorably inclined to the bond referenda than we may have given them credit for, this needs to be a reminder that sometimes it’s Republican voters who don’t show up in the expected numbers. The HISD results point to that. If we want to draw an inference for 2018, it’s that overall turnout doesn’t have to be huge for Democrats to have a good year. Who is motivated to vote matters.

7. There will be three runoffs on the menu for December, two in HISD (District I, Elizabeth Santos versus Gretchen Himsl, and District III, Jesse Rodriguez versus Sergio Lira) and one in HCC. One quick thought about that:

Meanwhile, Eugene “Gene” Pack and Pretta VanDible Stallworth were the top vote-getters in a three-way contest for an open seat in District IX. Pack, a retired auto broker, narrowly edged out Stallworth, a business consultant, for the top spot. But both fell short of the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. David Jaroszewski, a professor, was well behind.

Earlier Tuesday night, Pack expressed optimism that his early lead indicated voters endorsed him as an “outsider.”

“They’re tired of the direction the board has been going in,” he said.

Maybe, but with all due respect I’d suggest that Pack’s strong showing was a combination of his simple name and top spot on the ballot. My advice for the runoff to Pretta Stallworth is to make sure the voters there know that Pack is a Trump-supporting Republican. I’d guess that would outweigh any valorization of “outsider” status.

8. Finally, the Chron is in a scolding mood.

The ballot featured neither president, nor governor nor mayor, but Tuesday’s election was one of the most important to face Houstonians in decades.

So how did we respond? By not participating. Turnout – at less than 10 percent – was abysmally low.

By approving a $1 billion pension obligation bond, voters set City Hall on track to financial reforms that will cut expenses and, hopefully, usher our city out of a 16-year fiscal crisis. Months of negotiations, years of failed efforts, all came down to this vote – and the vast majority of Houstonians couldn’t be bothered to weigh in.

The immediate issues at City Hall – or Commissioner’s Court or school board – often have a greater impact on American’s everyday lives, yet the local issues have a way of getting lost in the cacophony of national politics. Blame it on media consolidation or the spread of Facebook and Twitter, but our government loses a core of its representative nature when elections that deserve all the attention of a professional sporting event pass with the fanfare of a Little League game.

Something has to change in our civic culture. Easier voting processes. Making Election Day a national holiday. Better promotion efforts. Local officials and nonprofits need to start work now on improving this atrocious turnout.

Actually, we know exactly what drives turnout in Houston municipal elections: the combination of a contested Mayor’s race and a controversial ballot proposition. This year had neither. But you know, one reason why those factors I cited generate turnout is that a lot of money gets spent by the campaigns to entice, encourage, and enrage people to go vote. Maybe what we need when faced with a low key slate like this is a dedicated source of funding to simulate a more exciting election year. How we can accomplish that is left as an exercise for the reader. Oh, and if we’re casting about for blame, I’ll just note that pre-Tuesday coverage from the Chron included one lame overview of the HISD races, and exactly nothing about the HCC ones. Maybe the lack of interest from voters was a reflection of that.

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8 Comments

  1. neither here nor there says:

    Republican turn out was down, from the numbers that I looked at, African American votes were up everything considered.

    The Democrats should make Harris County Blue if they don’tscrew it up, they are good at that. I expect that outside money, like the ones supporting the HISD candidates, will be coming here to drive out the vote next year.

    Pack is a Republican Pct Chair.

    The Chair for Precinct for 0286 is Eugene “Gene” Pac
    Contact your Precinct Chair
    Email: genepack2001@yahoo.com

    Not all Republicans are Trump supporters, but one can always claim they are. Senator Jeff Flake for one and the two former Bush presidents are examples of Republicans that are not Trump supporters.

  2. Bob Jones says:

    What we are really needing is property tax reform….something dare I say it, like California. Took HCAD to full arbitration this year (you have to roll the dice on $500 arbitration fee) and won. People affected by Harvey are going to find out that with the investors swooping in, your land value increased while your house didn’t devalue that much (I mean you just need the final paint at this point). I see a revolt in the works.

  3. Pat Bryan says:

    I am not going to say that Harris County Republicans have a problem. The longer they are unaware of the fact, the better. As long as they are cloaked in hubris and the inability to admit error, well bless their hearts!

  4. Bill Shirley says:

    For all the bitching from the Chronicle, (as a subscriber) I have a very hard time finding coverage of school board or city council minutia.

  5. Bill Shirley says:

    My fantasy would be a state income tax for those over (XXX fill in your value here, $1M?) to take some burden off the regressive property tax. Not too high (NNN fill in your value here, 3%?)

    Set the level high enough that most people don’t protest, but low enough that it might effect something. It would certainly be fiscally responsible.

    Of course, this couldn’t be feasible without a move to the left (or maybe center?) in the state lege.

  6. Mainstream says:

    Two hypotheses about the relative lower GOP turnout:

    1. core GOP voters are angry at the inability of the Congress to pass legislation as promised

    2. Westside voters affected by Harvey were either too busy or too angry at state and national legislators regarding flooding or reservoir release to support GOP-endorsed candidates

  7. Steve Houston says:

    Bill, given so few individuals make a million bucks a year, less than .1%, I don’t think you’d feel much relief taxing their income. You’d probably see a mad scramble for them to defer income or to move to Florida if such a tax was put in place even if the possibility existed. The last time I looked, the top 1% made just over 400k/yr and even there you’d see all sorts of back flips done to not pay an income tax, you retirees better off here than in most states.

  8. Melissa Noriega says:

    Good article. Great comments on an obscure election. Thx.

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