Houston-area elections: Low turnout, underrepresentation and incumbency advantage

Rice University
Office of Public Affairs / News & Media Relations

David Ruth

Amy McCaig

Houston-area elections: Low turnout, underrepresentation and incumbency advantage
New Rice report examines the state of local democracy in Houston and Harris County

HOUSTON – (Oct. 2, 2017) – In Houston and Harris County, elections are characterized by low voter turnout and underrepresentation of Hispanics in the electorate and candidate pool. In addition, incumbent candidates have a major advantage over challengers, according to a new report from the Center for Local Elections in America, part of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.


Image courtesy ThinkStockPhotos.com/Rice University

“The State of Local Democracy in Houston and Harris County” examines turnout, contestation, the incumbency advantage and the presence and election of women and Hispanic candidates to local office in Harris County and Houston between 2004 and 2016. Specifically, it examines elections for mayor of Houston, Houston City Council, Harris County Commissioners Court (including the county judge) and Harris County sheriff.

One of the report’s key findings revealed that recent local elections were characterized by low voter turnout. Typically, only about 10-15 percent of voting-age citizens cast a ballot. In addition, Hispanics were underrepresented both in the electorate and in the candidate pool. Most county- or city-level contests in Houston during this time period did not feature any Hispanic candidates. Furthermore, many elections for commissioner and City Council were unopposed, and incumbents who sought re-election were almost always victorious.

“High turnout, a representative electorate and contested elections are vital when assessing the health of local democracy,” said John Lappie, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Kinder Institute. “However, in most American municipalities, all three are lacking, and Houston is no exception. Turnout in Houston city elections is low, and even when Houstonians and Harris County residents do vote, they often find that candidates are running for re-election unopposed. These problems certainly are not unique to Houston or Harris County, but given the increased scope of local government in major cities, these problems may be more impactful here than in smaller communities.”

Other findings include:

  • Only one incumbent county commissioner, including county judge, was defeated for re-election over this time period. The incumbent who lost was the first commissioner to lose re-election in 36 years. Gerrymandering seems to be the most likely explanation for the dominance of incumbents.
  • A little under one-third of City Council district elections in Houston were unopposed and about 40 percent of county commissioner elections were unopposed. Lappie noted that this rate is better than in many American cities, but, he said, it is surprising that such a high proportion of elections are unopposed in a city as large as Houston.

Lappie said that policy interventions could address these local elections issues.

“Moving city elections to the same time as national elections would likely lead to higher rates of voter participation, meaning that the mayor and council will be chosen by a more representative portion of Houston’s population,” he said. “In addition, redrawing the county commissioners’ court district boundaries to create more competitive districts would likely lead to fewer uncontested elections and a lower incumbent re-election rate.”

The majority of the data, which covers elections from 2004 to 2016, came from the Harris County Clerk’s office. Information on turnout in Houston city elections and incumbency for Houston City Council came from the Houston City Secretary’s office. Demographic data was collected from the United States Census Bureau. Other sources of information included the Texas Secretary of State’s office, media accounts and the websites of various city, county and state officials.

The full report is available online at www.kinder.rice.edu.


For more information, contact Amy McCaig, senior media relations specialist at Rice, at 713-348-6777 or amym@rice.edu.

This news release can be found online at http://news.rice.edu/.

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Related Materials:

LEAP website: www.leap-elections.org/

Kinder Institute for Urban Research: http://kinder.rice.edu/

Kinder Institute Twitter: https://twitter.com/RiceKinderInst

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About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.