The timeline of voting rights in American history consists of notable markers spreading over the centuries since 1776 when the constitution gave voting privileges to only white men at least 21 years of age and who owned land.
Slowly but surely, those rights were legally extended specifically to Blacks, women, Native Americans and citizens at least 18 years old while eliminating barriers such as poll taxes and literacy tests.
Voting is considered a civic duty and yet, historically nearly one-third fewer U.S. voters show up during a midterm election than a presidential election. Statewide elections as well as those conducted in local school districts, municipalities and special taxing districts also experience low turnout, raising the question: What can be done to improve voter turnout?
In 22 countries across the world, the answer is a compulsory voting law. In Australia, for example, citizens who fail to vote could be fined $20. Requiring people to vote may increase the quantity of votes, but opponents question whether that method promotes quality voting.
Despite the time, effort, and expense to conduct an election, getting voters to cast their ballot may be the proverb, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
In an occasional series of articles, The Tyler Loop explores efforts to encourage participation in local elections through voting or becoming a candidate.
Part 1 – Registering: The first step to the polls
Part 2 – Educating the Public
Part 3 – Getting out the vote
Part 4 – Recruiting candidates
Although she cannot remember the conversation verbatim, Maxine Caldwell of Tyler hasn’t forgotten feeling a sense of accomplishment when she convinced an 80-year-old man to register to vote for the first time in his life.
“It (the conversation) was more to the point of basically if you don’t vote, you don’t have a voice,” Caldwell said. “I told him ‘All these years of seeing things you didn’t like … that you’re one vote might have made a difference’.”
The man, who previously had shrugged off persuasive arguments from others, somehow connected with Caldwell and filled out a voter registration card she provided.
“I think he was just ready,” said Caldwell, who volunteers for the Smith County elections administration.
Registering eligible residents is the first step to accomplishing the goal of getting people to vote. With the tendency for low voter turnout at the polls, it’s more important than ever.
In the May 7 local elections, only 9% of registered voters in Smith County — 13,609 out of 151,532 — participated, according to county records. That means one out of 17 people living in the county decided about spending tax dollars and electing representatives for the entire population.
Smith County residents can go to Smith County’s election office at 302 E. Ferguson Street or online at to get information about voting, but elections administrator Michelle Allcon said her office also works with different organizations, groups and individual volunteers to encourage eligible residents to register. She said her job also entails making the process as easy as possible.
“We do everything we can … providing training, supplies … anything that is needed,” Allcon said. “We rely heavily on these volunteers who set up booths at different events, organization meetings and around the county during National Registration Day in September.”
Caldwell, a registered dietician, said she began volunteering more than three years ago because of her sorority.
“Part of our mission is to be of service to all mankind,” she explained. “This is just one way that I feel I can be of service.”
She said she especially enjoys meeting people and engaging in conversations about reasons people do not participate in the Democratic process.
“Some of it makes sense, some of it doesn’t,” Caldwell said. “The most interesting thing about doing this is that it showed me it was really worth my time and effort.”
Another volunteer, Brenda Harris of Tyler, said she also finds it rewarding to register voters. The retired oil and gas piping designer began working with elections in the fall and currently is preparing to work registering people who have just moved into Smith County.
“I get a list of newcomers in my district … potential voters … and make sure they have an opportunity to register,” she explained.
State law also helps smooth the way to the voting box by requiring high school administrators and the Department of Public Safety to provide voter registration cards. People applying for a driver’s license may fill out the card in person or print out the form online. The forms are then routed to the county’s election administration office.
“The DPS brings in more, by far, compared to high schools,” Allcon said.
Election officials also get help from the Texas election code which requires each principal or his/her designee at public and private high schools to serve as deputy registrars. They distribute application forms to school employees and to students who turn 18 during the school year.
During the 2021-2022 school year, 326 out of 955 or 34% of eligible students reported registering to vote, according to school records. A breakdown of those figures shows 24% of eligible Tyler High students registered compared to 38% at Tyler Legacy. At the Early College High School campus, 49% of eligible students reported registering.
“We will continue and press this opportunity to participate in the democratic process each year,” deputy superintendent Ron Jones told the Tyler Independent School board during an April 18 meeting. “We’re open to suggestions in getting that number up.”
Both Harris and Caldwell said they are surprised when an election draws a low turnout, especially since Smith County officials make it “very convenient” to vote.
“You have the opportunity to make a difference. You have the opportunity to voice your opinion and your vote speaks volumes,” she said. “If you don’t vote, you don’t have a right to say anything … you chose to be silent when it mattered.”
For more information about registering to vote go to https://www.smithcounty.com/government/departments/elections
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