A Simple Election Day, Mostly Yes or No Answers

Posted by Jordan Rudner and Patrick Svitek - The Texas Tribune on
Photo by Shelby Knowles

Voting on constitutional amendments may not carry the same cachet as elections featuring living candidates, but Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos hopes Texans will head to the polls for Election Day nonetheless.

“There’s not a lot of romance in ‘em,” Cascos said. “These amendments aren’t debating each other, they aren’t calling each other out. But I think they’re very, very important — they’re changing and adding to framework of the Texas constitution.”

Seven constitutional amendments are up for a vote today, addressing issues ranging from highway funding and homestead exemptions to tax exemptions for spouses of disabled veterans and letting professional sports teams use their charitable foundations to hold raffles. One amendment would simply grant Texans the explicit, constitutionally bound right to hunt and fish.

But constitutional amendments aren’t a big draw for a state that already struggles with voter turnout, Cascos said. The two most recent off-year elections on constitutional measures saw turnout of 6 percent or less of Texas adults.

“I do think we’re going to have a low voter turnout, simply because normally the constitutional amendments generate less excitement than those generated by people,” he said.

Some Texans’ ballots will feature live candidates. Several school districts have board races. Members of Texas House District 118 will select someone to replace state Rep. Joe Farias, D-San Antonio, in a special election prompted by Farias’ August resignation. And some cities — most notably, Houston — are weighing contentious ballot measures and mayoral races.

Cascos said he hopes the local races help lure voters to the polls, where they’ll be able to vote on the statewide measures, too.

“The amendments, they stand alone — they have to sell themselves,” Cascos said.

Sure enough, early voting was higher than usual in Houston, with the greatest number of both early voters and mail-in ballots the city’s seen in 12 years. That's likely the result of a crowded mayoral race, and a vote on the city’s equal rights ordinance, better known as HERO.

In the mayoral race, 13 candidates are vying to replace term-limited Annise Parker, whose election in 2009 made Houston the nation's largest city with an openly gay mayor. About half the candidates for the non-partisan office are considered serious, with longtime state Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, leading the pack.

In recent weeks, attention has turned to who might join Turner in a likely runoff Dec. 12. Former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, a rising-star Democrat, was once considered a likely bet for the No. 2 spot, but his support has dipped after a series of unflattering stories about his handling of the county jail. Former Kemah Mayor Bill King has appeared to emerge as the leading choice of Houston Republicans, edging out a handful of other hopefuls angling for the mantle.

"At this stage in the game, I think we know three things: We know that we will have a runoff and that Sylvester Turner will be in the runoff," said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. "The drama on Election Night will be whether Bill King or Adrian Garcia gets that second spot, and right now we’d have to say King is the favorite." Garcia, Jones added, could come "within striking distance" if he drives his base of Hispanic voters to the polls at a higher rates than usual.

And Houston voters are also weighing in on HERO, the ordinance that would make it illegal to discriminate against someone based on 15 different “protected characteristics,” including sexual orientation and gender identity classification. The race has garnered national attention. Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton tweeted her support, as did HUD Secretary Julián Castro. A White House spokesman released a statement that President Barack Obama is “confident the citizens of Houston will vote in favor of fairness and equality.”

On the other side of the aisle, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has come out swinging against the ordinance, having helped fund a series of ads encouraging Houston residents to vote in opposition. Gov. Greg Abbott has also been a vocal HERO opponent, tweeting early Monday that Texans should vote in favor of state values, not “Hillary Clinton values”. 

“No men in women’s bathrooms,” he tweeted, alluding to anti-HERO arguments that have largely centered on bathroom talk.

All Texans should remember to bring a government ID to the polls if they decide to vote. Drivers’ licenses, military IDs, passports and concealed handgun permits are all accepted forms of ID, as are a handful of others. A report earlier this year from Rice University found that in certain house races, confusion over Texas’ voter ID laws may have stymied voter turnout. But Cascos said he believes voter apathy is the biggest problem.

“I don’t know if there’s anything in particular you can say to anyone” who doesn’t vote, Cascos said. “It’s really, really hard to change their mind.”

When Cascos ran for Cameron County judge in 2010, the race was decided by roughly 60 votes.

“I can tell you from personal experience — every vote does count,” Cascos said. “Every vote does matter.”

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