Don’t misinterpret Houston’s non-voting record

Lester O. King | December 1, 2015

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The following is a guest blog post by Lester O. King, an urban planner at Rice University’s Shell Center for Sustainability. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research or its staff.

It’s 1 p.m. on Election Day in Houston, and my social media accounts and email are blowing up with messages from local campaigns.

Many of my good friends have been publicly advocating for special ballot measures in Houston. Interestingly, fewer people seemed to be as vocal advertising their support for one candidate or another.

Of all the issues on the ballot, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) – which would prohibit discrimination in public accommodations and employment for 15 protected classes – was clearly the most discussed. HERO was highly contentious and garnered national interest due to critics whose campaign focused on provisions that would have allowed transgender people to access the bathroom of their choice. Critics of HERO released a particularly controversial advertisement that energized people on both sides of the issue.

If anything would get Houstonians to the polls, I thought, this would have to be it. On my Facebook page, I posted the chart below. “If Houston doubles the voting turnout this year over 2013 numbers,” I wrote, “it will be almost the same count as in 1997?!?”

Image via Lester O. King

Image via Lester O. King

In other words, even if Houstonians doubled the voting participation from last election, they’d still be relatively low.

I find myself many times in the awkward position of contributing factual and oft-times counter-intuitive data on urban development patterns in Houston. The Houston Sustainability Indicators Program, of which I am a part, is interested in contributing to enhanced reliability of facts, by analyzing and distributing data on urban performance in Houston, such as voting patterns. My work and that of my research center at Rice University is committed to empowering views through enhanced reliability of facts; and thereby changing the terms of normative discourse.

Examining indicators like voter participation can be beneficial for two important reasons. First, high turnout is a sign that voters feel engaged. Second, making the data easily accessible to the public, can change the dynamics of political discourse.

Back in 1997, Lee Brown became the first person who wasn’t white to be elected Houston mayor. The turnout of 342,099 was above average for the time and has not been met since.

This year, among the frontrunners, Houstonians had their choice of a black candidate, several white candidates, and a Hispanic candidate who would have been positioned to become Houston’s first Hispanic mayor. At the same time, there was a controversial issue that garnered national attention on the ballot. And yet, turnout didn’t soar.

When the dust settled on Election Day, we saw HERO defeated, the Hispanic candidate out of the runoff, and turnout – though higher than it was in the last mayoral election – still relatively low.

Image via Lester O. King.

Image via Lester O. King.

There are two important things to understand about this election. First, it is absolutely incorrect to say that based on the results, Houstonians do not support LGBT rights. In fact, I would go even further and say November’s election cannot be used to make any representation at all about Houstonians in general. Second, the most important takeaway from the election, is that in Houston we have a problem with community engagement (also called ‘social capital’), particularly among the fastest-growing segment of our population, Hispanic voters.

Both situations highlight a key point about November’s election: it was not representative of Houstonians because turnout was so poor.

In statistics, a representative sample does not technically have a minimum size, since the only real requirement is that the sample replicates the characteristics of the population being studied. Houston has a population of 2.58 million. A representative sample for this population size can be much smaller than this if it can replicate the distribution of race, gender, age, and all other demographic factors of residents across the city. Since we do not and cannot properly be certain that the voter turnout of 268,459 people was representative of the many differences, then another method must be used to ascertain representation.

I argue that unless the percentage of voters in an election is at least a simple majority of the population, it can’t be reliably considered representative of the population.

Of course, I am in no way saying the outcome of the voting process isn’t legitimate. I’m merely saying that since only 15 percent of the voting age population (27 percent of registered voters) participated in the 2015 election, the outcome – though legally unchallenged – can’t be considered representative of the general public.

The unfortunate national, regional, and local rhetoric about Houston not being progressive or compassionate due to the rejection of HERO is false – perhaps due to this data not being made available. In our modern world, it is important that decision makers, general public, and the media all share in access to intelligent interpretation of facts so we do not fall prey to rhetoric. Houstonians may have a problem with social capital. But it’s premature to declare that we aren’t progressive.

The other political situation worth examining is the election results of mayoral candidate Adrian Garcia.

In Houston, the Hispanic voting bloc is composed of people from many different countries and backgrounds. That said, those in the Hispanic ethnic group are more different from the African-American group and the white group than they are to each other.

In this city, Hispanics make up 44 percent of the population (about 1 million people) – more than any other ethnic group – but Garcia won just 17 percent of the vote (44,758 votes) and failed to win enough votes to reach the runoff. In a country based on stereotypes, why shouldn’t we have expected to see the Hispanic voting bloc rallying around their own in a local election?

As an expert in urban planning and sustainable development, this dynamic intrigues me. In a city with almost 1 million Hispanics, it’s striking that the lone Hispanic candidate could not secure more votes.

In 1997, 27 percent of Houston’s voting age population participated in an election in which the city elected its first black mayor, Leo Brown. This year’s race, which included African-American, Hispanic, and white candidates, saw participation that was 16 percent of the voting age population. (Interestingly, in 2009, just 11 percent of the voting-age population participated in the election that swept Annise Parker, the city’s first openly gay mayor, into office.)

Have Houstonians moved past race as an issue? Perhaps. The numbers may suggest that the racial aspect of the 1997 election was more important than the racial dynamic of the election today. Are Houstonians against LGBT representation and policy, demonstrated by high turnout at the polls? Absolutely not. The elections of 2009 and 2015 both testify to that fact.

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