Despite being part of the most diverse metropolitan area in the country, Houston and Harris County struggle to field and elect Hispanic and women candidates to local office, according to a new analysis from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research’s Center for Local Elections in American Politics. Looking at elections at the city and county level between 2004 and 2016, researcher John Lappie found that both the typical county and city election fail to include a Hispanic candidate, while women candidates are also featured in local races less than would be expected.
“Ideally, the diversity of the area’s population would be reflected in its candidate pool and in elected officials,” writes Lappie, but in Houston and Harris County, he added, “this is not the reality.”
Like other cities and counties, Houston and Harris County also struggle with low voter turnout and dominant incumbent seats, according to the report. “The studies LEAP has done show local democracy has a lot of problems; low turnout among voters especially when elections are held off-cycle, a lot of uncompetitive elections and lot of elections that are just plain uncontested,” said Lappie.
Typically only about 10 to 15 percent of the citizen voting-age population casts a ballot in Houston’s mayoral elections, according to the study, and just under a third of city council district elections are unopposed. At the county level, only one incumbent county commissioner was defeated for re-election during the more than 10-year study period while roughly 40 percent of county commissioner elections are unopposed.
“Municipal and county governments in the United States, especially ones as large as Houston and Harris County, possess many vital powers,” the report notes. “The decisions made in City Hall, and by the commissioners court, can have a much greater impact on the daily life of the average citizen than the decisions made in Austin or Washington, D.C.”
Voter turnout and incumbent advantage may be part of the problem behind under-representation for some groups in the Houston area.
“Candidates are risk-averse,” said Lappie. “They don’t want to run and lose.” Political science research shows, for example, that women are often actively discouraged from running. “We know that women face barriers entering the candidate pool,” he said. “They face challenges men don’t. But, generally speaking, political science research suggests once she has entered, her gender does not seem to have a negative effect on her vote share or her fundraising ability.”
Former Mayor Annise Parker served three two-year terms in office, in addition to serving on the city council and as city controller. Though women do tend to be included in the typical citywide race, just over a third all district-based city council elections, for example, were actually won by women during the study period. The same was true in at-large council elections, where they again won just over a third of the races.
At the county level, however, women fare much worse. Between 2004 and 2016, only three women even ran for county commissioner in the general election.
Meanwhile, Lappie said, potential Hispanic candidates may be discouraged from running by relatively low Hispanic turnout at the polls. “If they think my main base of voters is Hispanic,” said Lappie, “but they don’t vote as often, [then they might think] maybe I can’t win.”
Despite making up more roughly 44 percent of the city’s population, only 29 percent of district-based city council elections included at least one Hispanic candidate, according to the report. Though the at-large council races tended to include more Hispanic candidates, Hispanic candidates actually won fewer at-large seats than district seats, 13 percent compared to 21 percent. Indeed, the report suggests that at-large council seats may hurt the representation of non-white candidates. Currently, the report notes, white officials are the majority of the city council, with nearly all of the at-large seats held by white council members.
“Generally speaking,” said Lappie, “we think at-large seats hurt the election of minorities.” In addition to often reflecting the lingering segregation of the city, said Lappie, “It takes more resources to run at-large.” Overall, the report concludes, Hispanics are underrepresented in Houston’s municipal government.
In addition to reconsidering the role of at-large city council seats, the report also points to the role of gerrymandered county commissioner districts and the relatively uncompetitive races to represent those districts. Only one county commissioner successfully challenged an incumbent during the study period— making her the first incumbent to lose in 36 years — and roughly 42 percent of all county commissioner elections went unopposed. And though the county has been shifting more Democratic, its commissioners court is heavily Republican.
“Looking at the district lines, it seems that Democratic areas are being packed into Precinct 1,” said Lappie. “The other precincts contain the Republican-leaning areas of the county, with a few Democratic areas included, most likely to keep the population of the precincts approximately equal, as the law requires.”
The report also suggests moving municipal elections on-cycle with national midterm or presidential elections to increase voter turnout, as well as adding partisan elections at the city-level to drive people to the polls and encourage more down-ticket voting.
“A lot of these recommendations are sort of pick your own poison,” said Lappie, acknowledging that there are advantages and disadvantages to many of the proposed changes. But overall, he expects the changes would help local government better reflect its constituents and increase voter participation.