(Orange, Texas)

November 5, 2012

Binders Full of Voters: Activating the Texas Electorate

Special to The Leader
The Orange Leader

HOUSTON, Texas — Some are retired, some are students. Some are paid, others volunteer. Yet they all share a single goal. For weeks, a wide range of nonpartisan organizations across Texas have been training teams to knock on doors, make phone calls and drive people to the polls. Although they do not tell anyone how to vote, they are passionate about their message: Participating in elections is worth the effort. 

Canvassers with the Houston branch of the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) Education Fund - Rosa Garcia, Antonio Coronado and Sylvia Gonzales - all cite different reasons for getting involved.

[Garcia:] "The reason I started was because I needed a job, and now I see that I can make a difference." [Coronado:] "My main concern is to be part of the future, and be a better citizen for this country." [Gonzales:] "I'm a single mother, and I feel I'm doing something good for my kids."

With hundreds working in the field statewide, TOP targets infrequent voters - particularly those in Latino communities. Latinos now comprise 26 percent of the state's nearly 13 million registered voters. However, at least in recent elections, the Latino turnout rate has been lower than that of other groups.

Recent culinary-school graduate Ashley Estevan volunteers in the impoverished Rio Grande Valley. She says about half her time is spent motivating people who are struggling and have lost faith in politics.

"They are like, 'No - I've been let down so much by our elected officials over the last few years that I just don't feel like if I vote it'll make a difference.'"

She says she has persuaded many to vote by shifting attention from national politics to local issues. That is a familiar refrain among canvassers throughout Texas, where the outcome of the presidential race is already a near certainty.

Danny Cendejas has been knocking on Dallas doors since August. Elected officials, he tells people, tend to steer resources toward communities where people are politically involved. He finds this argument to be more effective than any other when it comes to persuading an infrequent voter to stick with the process.

"We tell that voter, 'Hey, if you cast your ballot, and you help get neighbors of yours to cast their ballots, too, elected officials know that these people are committed to making their communities better, so they have to pay attention.'"

Phone banks and door-to-door efforts are labor-intensive - and a turnoff to some on the receiving end. However, Estevan says, one-on-one conversations are often the only way to energize apathetic voters. Her greatest satisfaction comes from convincing people that they can actually make a difference.

"I push it every day, even if I'm not volunteering. I really do hope that people will start valuing themselves a little more, to get themselves out to the polls and tell themselves, 'My vote matters.'"

In 2010, the turn-out rate in Texas was lower than in any other state. Because partisan political campaigns tend to target likely voters, the task of motivating the disillusioned falls mainly to nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts.