Analysis: Texas lawmakers listen to the voters who show up

Voters in line at the Lakewood Branch Library in Dallas on Feb. 25, 2022, the last day of early voting in the Texas primary. (Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune, Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune)

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Unconventional Wisdom - April 22, 2022

Elected officials listen to voters, and Texas government could do so much better if voters were more demanding.

And if there were more Texans voting.

Look at how crisis concentrates political attention on problem-solving — and the problems politicians work on when voters aren’t alert.

In the 2019 legislative session, after a 2018 election in which voters sent a “get serious” message to state officials, public education and property taxes were the subjects at the top of the list, just under voters’ dissatisfaction with then-President Donald Trump.

In the session before, lawmakers were distracted by other issues — political issues — like the “bathroom bill” that set out to regulate which bathrooms transgender Texans would be allowed to use. It didn’t pass, but enough voters were unhappy enough to get the elected class in line.

The state’s top officials didn’t say specifically that they wouldn’t be working on another bathroom bill, but they said they would concentrate on serious “meat and potatoes” issues. And that’s what they did, passing legislation designed to slow the growth of property taxes and reworking public school funding to put more of the load on the state and less on local schools. It wasn’t property tax relief, as some had promised — taxes aren’t going down, just rising at a slower pace — but it was serious work.

All that happened in between those two sessions was an election that saw Democrats taking a bite out of the Republican majority in the Legislature and Republicans in statewide office holding on, but with smaller margins of victory than they had seen in a long, long time.

Voters speak, and politicians listen. That particular feedback loop actually works, whether you think votes count or not. The turnout in the 2018 election was 53%. That’s mediocre, unless you look at recent history. Turnout is higher in presidential election years, when the hoopla of a national race pulls in voters who often aren’t interested in other elections. But 2018 was an off-year election, like the one this year. And in the previous off-year cycle in 2014, turnout was 33.7%. Four years before that, 38% of the registered voters showed up.

The message in 2018 was in the results of the elections, but also in the high interest level of the voters. And the reaction of the elected class was like the difference between normal highway traffic and highway traffic when the state troopers are out in force.

When fewer of us are watching, lawmakers pursue their own political ends.

If you’re working in the Legislature and the list of voter demands is slight, you can turn to personal pet projects and political issues that pay off with primary election voters — that relatively small number of partisans who show up in March, when more than four out of five of the state’s registered voters are off doing something else.

It’s not complicated. Elected officials of all stripes listen closely to their voters so those voters won’t send them home. Not always, not every one, and not every time, but on average, voters toss out the bad eggs.

But which voters, and which kinds of bad eggs? General elections draw the biggest crowds, because that’s where statewide races are decided, and those are the big, noisy pileups that capture attention. But most legislative races are decided in the primaries, when most of us don’t vote.

The political maps drawn by legislators sort the state into Republican and Democratic districts, and as you would expect from a Legislature with a GOP majority, there are more Republican districts than Democratic ones. Lawmakers themselves decide which party has the best and often overwhelming chance to win in each district. They’re usually chased by hordes of litigants, but this year, the courts have so far let them be, leaving the Legislature’s preferences in place for this election cycle.

That leaves the real choice to the primary voters from each party, and since they’re doing the real choosing in Texas congressional and legislative races, they are the voters those elected officials listen to. They’ve protected themselves behind a minority of the electorate, and they spend their official time on issues important to that group.

Only 17.5% of the state’s registered voters showed up for the March primaries this year. They are often demanding, spurring the people they elect to govern in a particular way. What changes the outcome is when those small electorates swell, giving some of the quieter voters in each party a chance to be heard.

Votes do count.