Election after election, Republicans have dominated Texas politics since roughly the end of the 20th century.
And this year, Texas Republicans get another edge because it’s the first election after political maps for legislative and congressional seats were redrawn to largely favor Republican incumbents.
That’s left some voters asking us: Why vote? Does casting a ballot matter if the outcome seems predetermined?
Ahead of the voter registration deadline this Tuesday, Oct. 11, The Texas Tribune spoke to Texans across the political spectrum, political scientists and candidates in close elections and asked them to make their case for why voting matters this year.
For Democratic voters, political scientists say the outlook is not as dire as it may seem. And Republican and Libertarian voters say the election represents a chance to make their voice heard — even if they live in areas of the state where their candidate is all but guaranteed to win or if they don’t see their values reflected by prominent candidates.
“If you’re a citizen of a state or country, that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to vote,” said Raleen Sloan, a 66-year-old retired teacher in Kaufman County. “And you might not get your way, but you don’t have a right to complain if you didn’t at least try.”
Shifting politics and close local elections
Politics in the state are shifting as cities and suburbs grow, and voters still hold power to decide elections, particularly in local and statewide races.
“We’re not a state that is locked in,” said Richard Murray, a senior research associate for the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston.
While Republicans started to take command of Texas in the 1990s, their control has eroded in major metropolitan areas, including Dallas, Houston and Austin. Harris County, which used to be considered a political battleground, has clearly swayed blue in recent years with Houston’s growth.
That growth and change is also spilling into more suburban counties, such as Hays County in Central Texas, which transformed from a red to blue county during Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 bid for U.S. Senate and during the 2020 election.
“The level of change was really dramatic, and that was a change almost entirely driven by increased election participation,” said Democratic state Rep. Erin Zwiener of Driftwood, who flipped the state House district that included Hays and Blanco counties in 2018.
She won by 2,618 votes, or 3.2 percentage points. In 2020, she staved off a Republican attempt to take back control of the district. That year, she won by about 1,208 votes.
“I only won by 1 percentage point, and that means every single person that came out and voted was essential, and their voice mattered,” she said.
Other races have been decided by even narrower margins. In 2020, Republican candidate Justin Berry advanced to a primary runoff for an Austin state House seat by one vote. Berry went on to win his runoff but lost the general election to incumbent Democratic state Rep. Vikki Goodwin by 1,342 votes. He did not respond to an interview request for this story.
No Democrat has won a statewide elected office in more than two decades. O’Rourke came the closest in 2018, when he lost to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz by 2.6 percentage points. But Zwiener said she still sees opportunities for political change at the statewide level “because you can’t gerrymander a statewide race.”
The legislative and congressional districts drawn to keep Republicans in power usually “only work for a while because people move around and the maps get outdated,” Murray said.
“We’re a very dynamic state, and if you don’t like the way things are now, they’re probably going to change,” Murray said.
Texas Democrats are also grappling with political shifts in the Rio Grande Valley, a historic Democratic stronghold with lower voter turnout, where both Republican and progressive Democrats have seen some traction in recent elections.
This year, Republican Mayra Flores flipped a historically Democratic congressional district in a special election to temporarily fill the vacant seat, and progressive Michelle Vallejo beat out a moderate Democrat in the primary for Texas’ most competitive congressional race by 35 votes.
Political forecasters have more recently deemed Flores’ district, Texas Congressional District 34, a toss-up, and the district Vallejo is running for, District 15, a likely Republican win in the November midterm elections.
What Texans say
Christina Cheng-Patel, a 42-year-old clinical researcher based in Collin County, lives in one of the state’s increasingly competitive counties. While she has always voted in national elections, she feels it is more important than ever to engage with smaller races because of their impact on issues that she cares about like education, public health, gun control and reproductive rights.
“To affect change nationally, you have to change it locally,” said Cheng-Patel, who typically votes for Democrats.
First: Cheng-Patel’s binder of forms related to her role as deputy registrar. Last: Her jade bracelet, worn since she was 16 years old as part of a cultural tradition, is meant to act as a safeguard against bad luck. Credit: Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune
It has been a priority to inform her parents about local elections, she said, because the Republican Texas House candidate in their county, Frederick Frazier, was charged in June with a felony for allegedly impersonating a public servant.
This year, she is also helping to register Asian American voters as a volunteer deputy registrar.
“If somebody looks like you or can speak your language, it opens a dialogue and they’re more open to what you have to say,” said Cheng-Patel, who also speaks Mandarin.
Asian Americans are growing in number and becoming more politically engaged, but Cheng-Patel said some, including her, still feel hesitant about drawing attention as candidates for office. She said the alternative, especially when faced with a critical election cycle, is voting.
“If you’re not ready to take the big step and put yourself out there, at least you can back somebody who has your best interests,” she said. “The least we can do is vote.”
Sloan, the retired teacher in Kaufman County, agrees. She said everyone should inform themselves with a variety of news sources and vote.
“Even if you don’t agree with me, you need to get out and vote,” she said, “Because apathy is kind of how we get in a mess anyway.”
She said she’s “the perfect demographic” for a Republican voter — a white, Christian woman in a rural town — and she votes in Republican primaries to participate in local elections in her red county.
But she identifies as an independent voter and sometimes favors Democratic candidates and policies, including expanding access to Medicaid coverage and affordable housing.
“I want my vote to be for the good, especially those who have very little voice, and so I want to vote for that poor mother. I want to vote for that immigrant. I want to vote for the hungry and for the homeless and the children,” she said. “That aligns with my Christian faith because I believe Jesus made very clear how we treat these people is vital.”
Dacoda Burkholder, a 20-year-old college student at Stephen F. Austin State University, spends a lot of time thinking about elections.
He’s a history and political science major, a tutor for a Texas government course and has helped people register to vote. He also urges friends and family to vote.
“It’s the most powerful thing you can do, you know, you’re expressing your opinions. That can kick somebody out of office and a lot of people — especially women in a lot of countries — don’t have that right,” he told his mom, who has never voted.
Some of his peers and other family members have become disillusioned with increasing political polarization and divisiveness. He’s struggled himself as a moderate Republican. He worries about the political influence of former President Donald Trump in the GOP and “vehemently” disagrees with Texas’ abortion ban.
But that won’t deter him from voting. As a May 2023 graduate, he feels the economy and his future are on the line as the U.S. faces a possible recession.
“If you want something to change, and it’s not changing fast enough, not voting, boycotting the election is really not gonna make anything change,” he said. “It’s gonna make it worse.”
Kim Igleheart, a retired 61-year-old voter in Universal City, turned to voting for Libertarian candidates when she became disillusioned with the candidates on her ballot. She found voting for Republicans or Democrats compromised her values.
“I just got tired of voting for people that I wasn’t behind. You know, I felt like a hypocrite,” she said.
She said she has received comments on social media telling her she is throwing her vote away. But Ingleheart isn’t discouraged.
“Oh, I don’t care what they say,” Igleheart said. “The parties need to give us better choices.”
When Igleheart was younger, she said she could explain every single race on a ballot. Then bills, work and other responsibilities took more precedent in her life and she stepped back from the political sphere.
Now, she is getting involved again with local elections in Universal City, a town of about 20,000 people northeast of San Antonio. Igleheart said that she regularly advocates for tax relief for seniors and people with disabilities at City Council meetings.
“I’m really focused on the local level. I think that what happens locally affects me so much more than what happens nationally,” Igleheart said.
Celia Goode-Haddock worked in elections for nearly 30 years in Brazos County, serving as a precinct judge. The long working hours, low pay and Haddock’s growing back pain eventually led her to leave the position.
Since then, the 72-year-old has tried to stay engaged with elections by voting by mail. She says it’s easier for her, in part because she has time to look at her ballot and do more research on the candidates.
Haddock tends to vote Republican, though she doesn’t like party affiliations and doesn’t think she can vote for every Republican candidate on the ballot in the upcoming midterms.
“I got really disgusted with our governor and lieutenant governor and definitely our attorney general in the last few years,” Haddock said, referencing the state’s recent ban on abortions.
This November, Haddock plans to cross partisan lines in her ballot choices — voting for Democrats and Republicans.
“If I have an opinion, I need to step up and vote,” Haddock said. “And then if I’m unhappy with the vote, I’ve got to accept that, you know, there were more people voting differently than I did.”
First: Shkedi follows her two children to the retention pond behind their Pearland home on Sunday. Last: Shkedi outside of her home. She considers herself an independent voter but usually votes for Democrats due to a lack of viable independent candidates. Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune
Brienne Shkedi’s daughter is 5 years old and just started school. She’s at the center of Shkedi’s mind this election season.
“She’s clearly not impacted by abortion, but I look at that and think how sad for her that a right that I had the entirety of my adult life is something that could impact her,” Shkedi said. “I think about something terrible happening to her when she’s older and not being able to do something about it.”
Shkedi, 43, lives in Pearland, a suburb of Houston. She considers herself an independent voter but usually votes for Democrats due to a lack of viable independent candidates.
The right to vote itself is at stake for Shkedi this election season. In the last two years, Texas policymakers have passed some of the strictest voting laws in the country.
“If we don’t vote, it seems clear that we will lose the right to vote and lose the ability to vote,” Shkedi said. “If you want a functioning democracy — to have an impact on things that do matter to you later on — just the simple act of voting helps make sure that you still have that democracy. Because if we don’t use it, I feel very strongly that we will probably lose it.”
Cécile Fandos is fascinated by Texas’ particularly long ballots.
In France, her home country, voters don’t elect offices such as judges and school boards or law enforcement leaders like sheriffs.
“So some things of your daily life, citizens don’t really have an impact in the same way that you can over here,” the 39-year-old said.
Fandos, a mom of two, is eagerly awaiting to have a direct say in who is on her school board. She has lived in Austin for 11 years and has been a permanent resident for almost five years. She plans to apply for U.S. citizenship in December. For now, she block-walks with the Travis County Democratic Party and hands out voter registration applications.
“I can’t vote, so please do if you can,” she said.
Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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