Tyler’s voter turnout is so low, 100 votes could swing an election

Just one seat on the city council is up for grabs in next month’s local elections: District 5, which covers most of southeast Tyler, including the UT campus. Bob Westbrook, a Tyler businessman with extensive community credentials, is the conventional pick for winner. His opponent is Alan Lizarraga, a former Marine and a lab supervisor at University of Texas. We wrote about Lizarraga’s top priorities for the city earlier this week.

We’ll be keeping a close eye on voter turnout on election day, May 6. As a rule, abysmally few Americans vote. The situation gets worse in local elections, and Texas is particularly bad. A Portland State University study of 50 American cities found that Dallas, Forth Worth, San Antonio, El Paso, and Austin each had less than 15 percent turnout in mayoral elections — among the worst in the study.

Those results are mirrored in Tyler, where only 3,094 voters showed up at the polls for last year’s mayoral election, according to the Elections Administration Office for Smith County. That’s just five percent of Tylerites who were registered and eligible to vote and less than any city in the Portland State study.

The flip-side of this depressing situation is that individual votes actually carry a great deal of weight in local elections. For example, there are about 10,000 voters in District 5, but based on last year’s turnout in the district, fewer than 400 voters can be expected to cast a ballot. Such low turnout means that as few as 100 additional votes can end up having a big impact.

Lizarraga’s supporters may be hoping that his connection to UT means more students will get out and vote. The median age of a District 5 voter is 50 years old, but there are enough eligible voters under age 24 to easily decide the election. Unfortunately for the political outsider, students tend to have particularly low turnout. Will that change with this election? We’ll find out in less than two weeks.

Want to do your part to up Tyler’s miserably low voter participation rates? Complete voting information is available online. Not registered? It’s too late to register to cast a ballot in the District 5 election, but why not do it anway so you’ll be ready for next year?

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Chris Groskopf is co-founder of The Tyler Loop and a member of its board of directors. He is a pioneer in the field of data-driven storytelling, having worked at The Chicago Tribune, NPR, and Quartz. In addition to his work as a journalist, Chris runs a software engineering team for Enigma, a New York City-based data technology startup.