Educating voters means more than ensuring they understand the electoral process. It also means hoping they make an informed choice.
To address the first goal, the democratic process relies upon election officials and educators, but the responsibility for making informed choices lands squarely on voters’ shoulders.
In an occasional series of articles, The Tyler Loop explores efforts to encourage participation in local elections through voting or becoming a candidate.
This is the second installment. Part 1, published on May 21, 2022, addressed efforts to register more voters through various means including distributing registration cards at high schools and through the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Part 2 – Educating the Public
Part 3 – Getting out the vote
Part 4 – Recruiting candidates
For elections administrator Michelle Allcon, educating Smith County residents about the electoral process is a year-around job.
Sure, the services her department provides become a little more in demand just before any election day, but there is still a lot of work to be done before and after.
Earlier this month, deputy administrators and volunteers stationed inside and outside of Tyler helped register voters during National Voter Education Week. The event, conducted annually since 2020, helps to ensure voters have the tools, information and confidence they need to cast a ballot.
Allcon said her office also provides information through various sources to help voters from being just registered to actually casting a ballot. Those efforts include working with the media and giving presentations to various groups about polling locations, voting dates and times, sample ballots and how to vote in person or through a mail-in ballot.
In recent elections, Allcon said there were some problems with incomplete or inaccurate applications for mail-in ballots. She said election department employees reached out to nearly 300 people to help correct them.
Smith County offers the same information on its website as well as being available through telephone or personal contact.
“If a voter has a question, it’s always best to come by and ask, especially before election day,” she said. “We’re always willing to help.”
Voters also may learn more about the process by viewing the state website.
Informed voters: Candidates
Actively participating in elections gives people a voice in who represents them in the government and in deciding major issues in their communities. Although partisan loyalty and candidate characteristics can play a major role in deciding, there may be a multitude of other influencing factors.
Experts know voters who already have made up their mind before an election are unlikely to be persuaded to change. So, educating the public about a candidate or issue tends to focus on the undecided. Education, however, is a two-way street. Not only do candidates and those who support or oppose an issue need to inform the voters, voters also need to seek out information to help them decide how to vote.
“The ones in the middle ground are the ones that need the most education of all … they are the folks trying to find out who aligns more with what they believe,” Smith County Republican Party Chairman David Stein said. “I think anyone who wants information to get out … has a responsibility to make sure the information is accessible, but in the same breath, yes, I think it is up to each voter. It’s like education. The person who should take the most interest in your education is you.”
Technology enhances the ability for candidates to connect with voters who can access information via candidate websites, Facebook pages, Twitter and YouTube. Candidates also often mass mail brochures to homes, advertise in newspapers and on local television stations and sometimes campaigning door to door. But Stein said it is still important for candidates to connect with voters personally.
“Certainly, Get Out the Vote events, when the candidates are there, so people have a chance to meet the candidates more face to face, … is great,” he said. “But, if you want to find out where a candidate really stands, you kinda got to talk to both sides. To take one new source at face value isn’t the best course of action.”
In Tyler, there are a number of organizations — League of Women Voters of Tyler, Tyler Organization of Men, Grassroots America – We the People, to name a few — that often sponsored public town hall meetings or candidate forums to promote public debate and education.
Informed voters: Community Issues
After talking about it, researching, and debating the issue for more than 20 years, Smith County voters finally will get to weigh-in on whether to approve funding for a new county courthouse.
The $179 million bond referendum includes $19 million for building a parking garage to service the new courthouse. Voters will decide whether to fund the proposed project during the Nov. 8 general election.
Referendums such as these require extensive educational campaigns to not only inform voters but get them to the polls. In the past, Smith County voters approved bonds for road and bridge projects and those within Tyler Independent School District rejected and approved bonds for building new schools.
Stein said County Judge Nathaniel Moran and some county commissioners have been working to educate the public about the proposal through a website and informational brochure. And personal presentations. Moran, he said, has given dozens of presentations to service groups and organizations throughout the county.
“Anyone who says they didn’t know about this, well, they just haven’t looked very hard,” Stein said. “The information is out there.”
But the county commission is limited in what elected members can do. Although commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of placing the issue before the voters, by law they cannot actively campaign for its support or in opposition. The bond referendum came after officials received input from consultants, community stakeholders, county officials and citizens.
“For them (commissioners) to vote to put it on the ballot, there’s a certain amount of their own due diligence … just to get it to that point,” Smittee Root, campaign manager for the Stronger and Safer Smith County political action committee. “Now it’s in the voters’ hands to make a decision.”
Committee members created their own website, a Facebook page, and a series of mail-out brochures encouraging voters to say yes to the bond proposal. One of their first mailers, however, did not state the bond amount or give their organization’s website address to direct voters for more information. Root said she believes subsequent brochures will include that information.
Committee members also organized about 55 community members for a steering committee to seek endorsement, participate in forums on the issue, and help educate citizens about the advantages of approving the bond, she said.
Root, a former executive director for Leadership Tyler, said she hopes voters invest in making the right decision for the future.
“Ultimately, I personally have to trust that voters are going to ask the right questions. If there is an issue they don’t understand … that they are going to seek that out,” she said. “We’re going to do everything we can to educate as many people as we can and they’re going to decide.”
As for the opposition, Smith County Democratic Party Chairman Hector Garza said citizens generally agree the county eventually will need a new courthouse, but considering the current economic climate, “now is not the time.”
Commissioner Terry Phillips expressed that same concern when he voted against placing the bond referendum on the November ballot.
Garza addressed concerns about other needs in the county (sewage problems in the Jackson Heights area), the interest the county must pay for borrowing $179 million in bonds and the location of the new courthouse.
He attended a meeting Tuesday night sponsored by the Tyler Organization of Men in which Commissioner JoAnn Hampton gave an informational presentation of the courthouse project. Her video presentation included video, slides and answering questions.
“We’re not hiding anything,” Hampton told participants. “We’re being very transparent.”
Garza said it is important for citizens who intend to vote on the bond referendum to not only understand what is on the ballot but seek out answers to any questions they may have on the issue.
“Voters need to be well educated … for them to look at their options, to see exactly what’s on the ballot,” he said. “The easiest way (to get informed) is by word of mouth, asking, asking somebody … call your representatives, call Judge Moran directly … call the party chairmen and we’ll help educate them.”
Vanessa E. Curry is a journalist with nearly 35 years of experience as a writer, editor and instructor. She earned a B.S. degree in Mass Communication from Illinois State University and a MSIS degree from The University of Texas at Tyler with emphasis on journalism, political science and criminal justice. She has worked newspaper in Marlin, Henderson, Tyler and Jacksonville, Texas as well as in Columbia Tennessee. Vanessa also was a journalism instructor at the UT-Tyler and Tennessee Tech University. Her writing has been recognized by the State Bar of Texas, Texas Associated Press Managing Editors, Dallas Press Club, and Tennessee Press Association. She currently is working on publishing two books: “Lies and Consequences: The Trials of Kerry Max Cook,” and “A Gold Medal Man, A biography of Kenneth L. “Tug” Wilson.
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