Voter turnout on the border still low

Christian Vasquez, Copy Editor

Voter turnout in El Paso is so low that is has been longer than a decade since 50 percent of registered voters decided to participate in the government process. The presidential elections usually double the number of voters compared to the regional elections, which is what happened in ’92, when voting was at 64.3 percent of  registered voters, according to the Texas Secretary of State department. And while it does make sense that the more media-driven elections encourage voters, it leaves the fate of El Paso in the hands of a few thousand.

Iliana Holguin, the chair of the El Paso Democratic Party, said that it’s a problem of information and El Paso’s own organizations.

“There’s a lot of groups who try to register new voters and who successfully register new voters,” said Holguin. “The reason we don’t see that translate into more people voting is that I don’t think a lot of these organizations, and I’m going to include ourselves in it, I don’t think we do a good enough job in following through with these voters.”

Currently, El Paso County has 420,678 registered voters, which might sound like a lot, but falls short for two reasons.

The population is 835,593, according to the 2015 census report. Of that total population, 27.9 percent are under the age of 18, which makes the number of eligible voters, assuming they are all eligible, at 602,462.

Compared to the number of registered voters, El Paso appears to have a solid grasp on getting citizens to register. The number of registered voters has steadily increased since ‘88, when it was at just 199,671.

The reason the number of registered voters falls short is because the number of actual voters has fallen dramatically since ’88. In fact, the number of actual voters is lower than it was in ’88, which was 118,781. In 2014, only 80,279 votes were cast out of 403,979 registered voters.

Bob Penya, executive director of the Republican Party of El Paso, explained the problem.

“You know we had a mayor elected with something like 3 percent of the population,” said Penya. “They say 19 percent of the electorate (vote)? But how many people are even electorate?”

According to the El Paso County Elections, the mayoral election had only 44,762 voters participate, and out of those votes, Oscar Leeser won by 21,776 votes.

“We have a very extremely low voter turnout, and we have a lot of people registered, they just don’t vote,” said Penya.

Registration is only the first step to voting. In the most important step, actually casting the vote, El Paso falls far behind.

El Paso is a council-manager form of government, meaning that El Paso elects a mayor alongside eight council members, each of which represents a district in El Paso. And while the mayor is elected by a fraction of the population, the council members are a fraction of that fraction. The votes for city council members range as low as 2,681 for District 5 to as high as 6,540 for District 7.

“You have our city council that is elected by just a few hundred voters and these people manage a budget of half a billion dollars,” said Penya. “A corporation of that size would not have that type of representation—people would watch it.”

Those few hundred voters decide  how the city’s money is going to be spent. From the construction that surrounds Mesa Street to the policies of the El Paso Police Department, it is all in the hands of those who take the time to vote.

“These are the entities that tax us as homeowners, they determine our tax rate, they determine the policies that govern our actual day-to-day life,” said Holguin. “Not just city council and the mayor, but the schoolboard elections. School boards are also major tax entities and so they decide whether or not they want to bring bond proposals to the voters.”

But the city has a plan to help boost those votes. In 2018, the elections will be moved from May to November in hope of getting more people to vote at once. Since El Paso has the greatest number of people voting when there is a presidential election alongside other municipal elections, the plan is to have other municipal elections bundled together so people can vote for multiple positions.

“Right now our city council races are held in May, they’re staggered terms so you see the same problem everywhere,” Holguin said. “When the mayor is up for election, you get a higher voter turnout, but when it’s the off-year when only four city reps are up for election, you get a lower turnout.”

However, Penya fears that this will decrease the number of people voting with a solid grasp of the candidate’s policies.

“How much can a candidate for municipal court judge position or a candidate for city council or commissioners court – how can he reach the people when he’s going against the billions dollars of advertising on television,” said Penya. “Because Governor Abbot has a lot more money than city council woman X.”

These elections might also encourage straight-ticket voting, where a person votes down the ballot for the party that they identify closest toward, which might bode well for Democrats since El Paso has traditionally voted blue.

But if people cannot find the time to research every candidate from the president down to the sheriff come November, some wonder if the increase in votes is worth it.

Christian Vasquez may be reached at [email protected]