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HPPR Government & Politics

Texans Aren't Great Voters, But They Are Good Neighbors, Study Finds

Austin residents line up to vote at a Fiesta in 2016.
Austin residents line up to vote at a Fiesta in 2016.

A new study of civic activity in Texas finds some of the reasons behind the state's notoriously low voter-turnout rate, but shows glimmers of hope for more political participation.

All Things Considered host Nathan Bernier spoke to Susan Nold, director of The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas, which conducted the study.

Listen to their conversation:

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Nathan Bernier: Any reason to be hopeful here?

Nold: Yeah, a few of the things that I think are fairly good news is that compared to other states, we've improved a little bit in voting and voter participation. We ranked 47th in voter turnout, which is slightly higher than where we were five years ago. Compared to other states, we were right at the bottom of all 50 states just five years ago. And we ranked 44th among other states for voter registration, which is also a little bit better than where we were five years ago.

Bernier: Why are people not voting in Texas?

Nold: Well, people have a lot of reasons. We've discovered in lots of different surveys on this subject that people love to make excuses for why they're not voting. One of the changes we saw in looking at this over time – often the most cited reason, and this was true five years ago, is that people say they're too busy to vote. Interestingly, in 2016 that changed a little bit, and the most often cited reason was that folks didn't really like the candidates or the issues that they were being presented with and that was the most often cited reason for not voting.

Bernier: But yet voting is only one form of civic participation. A lot of people think you go to the ballot box. You dial in your selection and then your civic responsibilities are done. But you've also looked at other forms of political participation in Texas. What did you find there?

Nold: Well, we learned that Texans are kind of a hospitable state. We're fairly good neighbors. That's also some good news. We are smack in the middle of states when it comes to doing favors for our neighbors. The sad thing about that is that it's a fairly small percentage across the whole nation, folks doing favors for their neighbors. So, we still, even though we're not near the bottom of states, we've got some work to do to become better neighbors.

We also see that Texans are slightly higher than we are in political areas in the civic involvement areas, so things like volunteering, donating money. We're doing a little better relative to other states in those categories.

Bernier: Often civic participation is closely correlated with membership in a community group or a volunteer organization. What are the most common membership groups for Texans and how does that affect their involvement in civic life?

Nold: The most common membership group Texans belong to are churches, so religious institutions and organizations. The next sort of group would be a community or neighborhood association. And below that you see sports leagues, social clubs and charitable groups. We see that these numbers are slightly higher among the age bracket of Texans who might have kids. So kids are often a way that individuals get involved in groups or join things. One of the things that just even acknowledging that group membership and connections with others is a part of the cycle here places a lot of importance on our workplaces to be avenues to encourage employees to join things, to get involved in charitable organizations and become members of other groups outside of work.

Bernier: So, it sounds like if I am a civically engaged person – maybe I listen to public radio and I follow the news – and I want other people in my life to also be engaged, just talking to them about politics is one of the ways to make them more likely to vote, for example.

Nold: Absolutely. Just talking about politics is one of the things that we measure in this report and the frequency with which people talk to their neighbors about issues of local concern. A lot of folks are turned off by politics right now and for many good reasons. It's a pretty divisive subject. However, if you think about politics from the standpoint of: What's going on in your neighborhood? What's going on in your city? What's something you might have in common – a public issue or an issue of public interest that you might have in common with a neighbor or a friend? That's a good way to have a conversation about politics without even realizing you're doing it.

Bernier: Susan Nold is the director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin. Thank you so much for your time, Susan.

Nold: Thank you for having me.   

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