Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life

Photo Credit: Daulton Venglar | Daily Texan Staff

Professors and campaign professionals gathered at the Belo Center for New Media on Wednesday to dissect and analyze Tuesday’s election results at an event hosted by the New Politics Forum at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life.

Election Day in Texas saw Republican candidates win all statewide races with large, double-digit margins. At Wednesday’s election debriefing, Regina Lawrence, journalism professor and Strauss Institute director, said voter turnout is what makes the democratic process effective.

“Elections are kind of an imperfect way of measuring the will of the people, and they get less and less perfect, the fewer and fewer people who show up,” Lawrence said. “In a way, elections are all about who shows up.”

Lawrence said the election Tuesday demonstrated the increasing popularity of early voting in Texas.

Actually we saw, in a continued trend, an increase in early voting so that we had about one-third of Texas registered voters actually voting before yesterday,” Lawrence said.

Voter turnout across the state has been low, but Lawrence said Texas had the lowest turnout in the country in 2010.

“I’m here to tell you that the early returns suggest that Texas was not dead last yesterday,” Lawrence said.

Ross Ramsey, executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, said turnout is always an issue when it comes to election time.

“There’s a big emphasis in politics, not just in this campaign, but in a lot of places on voter registration and the importance of voter registration,” Ramsey said. “Voter registration doesn’t matter if you can’t peel them off the couch when its time to vote.”

Lawrence said despite the meager voter turnout, there were more open races on Tuesday than there has been in Texas since 1906.

“So we had a really historic opportunity for voter engagement, but we saw it unmet,” Lawrence said. 

Young voters are commonly the most underrepresented, and, according to Lawrence, this year was no different. Lawrence said her experience in the classroom has given her an idea of why this occurs.

“I can tell you, at least anecdotally, over the years of teaching, that the young people that I teach tell me again and again that one of the biggest reasons that they do not vote consistently is that they don’t feel informed enough,” Lawrence said. 

Lawrence said young voters might also vote less than other age groups because they feel isolated from the major political parties.

“Of course, we know that for many young people, these days particularly, there’s not as much of a strong connection to political parties, to those traditional political identities of democrat and republican,” Lawrence said.

Edward Espinoza, executive director of the Texas Research Institute, said there was little the Democrats could have done to fend off Republican

“Had the Latino outreach been better, that would have taken [Democrats] from 39 percent to maybe 43 percent, but there was no stopping that wave,” Espinsoza said.

Photo Credit: Erica Reed | Daily Texan Staff

Texans are some of the least engaged citizens in civic life in the United States, according to a national index.

The low ranking was spotlighted on campus Saturday during the Texas Conference on Civic Life. In 2010, Texas ranked 51st in voter turnout among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., according to the Texas Civic Health Index. UT’s Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life produced the report in partnership with the National Conference on Citizenship.

In political participation, the report showed the top two reasons Texans said they did not vote in 2010 were because they were too busy, and they felt like their vote didn’t matter. Political participation also correlated with race and ethnicity, finding that the white population was twice as high in voter turnout than the Hispanic population.

In last week’s election, only 15 percent of registered voters in Travis County cast a ballot.  

At the conference, students, faculty and residents from around the state discussed the future of civic engagement in Texas and how they can work together toward greater civic health.

A variety of speakers at the conference addressed the statistics in The Texas Civic Health Index and allowed audience members to interact with each other about the issues they thought were important in their communities.

Institute director Regina Lawrence said the report’s civic health indicators reflect social connectedness, political participation and civic involvement.

“Unfortunately, one thing we found is that Texas is not doing so well compared to other states,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence said one glimmer of hope for Texas’ low civic engagement is the state’s rank as 16th in social connectedness, which the institute describes as frequently interacting and trusting neighbors and family.

Lawrence said the conference aimed to increase community interaction allowing participants to discuss issues that were important to them in their neighborhoods.

Kathryn Flowers, graduate research assistant at the institute, said the conference allowed people to share the issues that are important to them, including a station to create a visual collage of their neighborhood identity.

“It’s important to do civic engagement activities like this where people aren’t doing research and aren’t being pushed to do anything specific,” Flowers said. “Strauss is about engaging people wherever they are on the political spectrum.”

The event gave citizens the opportunity to talk about what policies they would like their representatives on Austin City Council to address.

Ann Stehling, government senior and administrative assistant at the institute, said that the dim lighting and crime in West Campus were her biggest concerns.

“I would really appreciate having a city councilman who is concerned about the safety of the students in West Campus and for women especially who may not have a man to walk home with them every night,” Stehling said.

Everything is bigger in Texas — except voter turnout.  

In conjunction with the National Conference on Citizenship, UT’s Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life released the Texas Civic Health Index that ranked Texas amongst the lowest states in civic engagement on Tuesday. According to the the institute, Texas has a voter turnout of 36 percent — the worst in the country. 

Annette Strauss Director and journalism professor Regina Lawrence said the goal of the study is to make Texas residents aware of where they stand in volunteering, contacting their representatives and voting. 

“The goal was to provide the first comprehensive report measuring civic engagement using current US Census data,” Lawrence said. 

Citizenship, income, education, age, race and ethnicity all have an effect on each resident’s level of civic engagement, the report said. Residents with higher education usually fair better in each category but education senior Rina Patel said she believes the low numbers in Texas stem from a disconnect between the public and elected officials.

“There’s an interest on topics but a disagreement between students' views,” Patel said. 

The study records only nine percent of Texas contacting elected officials compared to twelve percent in the United States average. The study also ranked Texas as the 42nd state for volunteering.

Economic and advertising senior Timothy Tran said learning how to be engaged in the community should be taught in schools.

“The government or the independent school districts do not do enough to prepare kids to graduate and understand how to be involved, rather than the linear pattern of just going to school,” Tran said. 

Lawrence said the institute offers programs such as, ‘Speak Up, Speak Out’, a program that enables school-aged children to identify problems in their communities and learn how to address them. 

“The quality of civic engagement has to be improved in K-12 instead of just the emphasis on memorization,” Lawrence said. 

Where Texas does rank higher than the United States average is in “social connectedness” for exchanging favors with neighbors.

Hoping to increase civic engagement, experts and community members weighed in at a panel Tuesday to discuss city representation and Austin’s 10-1 proposal.

KLRU, KUT and the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life hosted “Why Bother?” a TV series dedicated to engaging Texans in democracy and addressing local political issues. The episode will be broadcast on May 16. 

The panel focused on the city’s 10-1 proposition, which Austin voters passed in November. The proposition splits the city into 10 districts with one representative from each district elected to serve on the Austin City Council. Currently, the council has six members who represent the entire city. 

Kathryn Flowers, public affairs graduate student and research technician at the institute, said 10-1 will have a greater effect on neighborhoods because Austinites will see more changes from the council.

“You have someone that’s just looking at interest in neighborhood rather than city as a whole … but there are problems that come with that too, because districts often fight with each other over what issue they want,” Flowers said.

Ryan Robinson, city demographer and one of the panelists, said the proposition will help to alleviate low voter-turnout rates in Austin. Texas has one of the lowest civic-participation rates in the country, with voter turnout in Austin’s 2012 mayoral election at 10.5 percent, and voter participation in the last city council member election at 7.5 percent, according to Robinson.

The panel also featured Sherri Greenberg, director for the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and Carol Lee, president of Austin Neighborhoods Council. Kevin Foster, associate professor of African and African diaspora studies, anthropology and education administration, moderated the event. KLRU also invited 10 neighborhood representatives to voice their opinions about 10-1.

Individuals on the panel discussed balancing representing specific neighborhoods with the overall interest of the city. Carl Webb, a resident from Southeast Austin, said he is skeptical of geographical representation.

“I live along east East Riverside,” Webb said. “As they start to build condos, which they already have, are the thousands of people that live there now that have affordable rent … are we going to have as much voice as the real estate developers? Is the representative going to be beholden to [its citizens] or to the rich and powerful?”  

With Election Day less than a month away, ballots are filled with candidates from the far left and far right, leaving some voters stuck in the middle.

Members of a political panel called “Political Polarization: A Conversation Across the Divide” said the wide ideological divide between left and right is alienating young voters.

The panel, sponsored by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life within the College of Communications, was held Thursday. The institute aims to create understanding to overcome political problems and encourage civic engagement.

Regina Lawrence, the institute’s director, said the topic is important to students who have only witnessed partisanship in government.

“I don’t know if [young people] know this, but politics hasn’t always been like this, been so divided,” Lawrence said. “A lot of people are feeling the same frustration about politics and bad blood between parties. Right now it might be fun if you are super-partisan, but it is not very helpful for the rest of us.”

Panelist Linda Moore Forbes, former staff of the Democratic Leadership Council and special assistant to the President during the Clinton administration, said constant political reporting and partisan media coverage have contributed to the political divide.

“Now we have a situation where people focus on the short-term battle every single day in the media,” Forbes said. “The tipping point of when it changed was the rise of the internet, the rise of the blogosphere.”

Panelist Mark McKinnon, former media adviser to George W. Bush, said along with the partisanship in politics, lobbying and undisclosed donations inhibit legislative action.

“There is an enormous amount of outside money coming into the system,” McKinnon said. “It’s amplifying the voices of minority interests. If you are outside of Washington and you look at what’s happening in Washington, you hear these voices that you think reflect the view of the country, and they don’t.”

Panelist Trey Grayson, director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University and former Secretary of State of Kentucky, helped produce Harvard’s 2012 survey, “Young Americans’ Attitudes Toward Politics and Public Service,” in which only 48 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds surveyed nationwide said they will definitely be voting. Grayson said a polarized political system has contributed to the lack of participation.

“The concern is that, for many of you, this is your introduction to politics, to voting,” Grayson said. “We want you all to believe in the system and believe that your voices matter and that your votes matter — that you can make a difference.”

The institute will host a post-election debriefing conference Nov. 9 in the Belo Center for New Media.

Printed on Friday, October 19, 2012 as: Panel talks youth, polarizing politics