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How to Address Low Voter Turnout? Invest in Education.

Election day is quickly approaching in municipal and school board races across Dallas County.  If you regularly vote in these local elections, you’ve likely been inundated with mailers, phone calls, and block walkers. Unfortunately, that kind of attention is limited to a small and very specific segment of our voting-eligible population.

That’s because North Texas has remarkably low voter turnout in its local elections.  In particular, the city of Dallas placed dead last in a study of participation in municipal elections among thirty major U.S. cities, with a turnout rate of just over 6%.  That means it’s likely that a new mayor, an entire slate of city council members, and a third of the Dallas ISD school board could be decided by less than one-in-ten of the voting age population.


To combat this disheartening trend, local elected officials such as State Rep. Jessica Gonzalez have recommended procedural changes to simplify the voting process, such as an extension of voting hours and weekend voting. These adjustments have the potential to generate an immediate positive impact. But fully addressing an issue as entrenched as voter apathy in Dallas County will likely require a more systemic, data-driven approach.

So here is what the data states, unequivocally: the higher your level of educational attainment, the more likely you are to vote.  According to recently-released census data, 53.4% of eligible voters participated in the midterm elections. But among eligible voters who have not completed high school, participation was below 28%. Compare that to over 65% of eligible bachelor’s degree holders, and nearly 75% of eligible voters with more advanced degrees.

We can see this national trend play out on a local level, as well.  The following is a scatter plot detailing participation in the 2018 midterms by Dallas County precinct, as it relates to the percentage of college attendees in that precinct.  The correlation is clear: the more college-goers who live your neighborhood, the longer you’ll likely have to wait in line on election day.

Below, you’ll find a data tool that you can use to take a deeper dive into this topic.  The map on the left details high school diploma attainment in Dallas County by precinct. The map on the right illustrates the percentage of registered voters who made it to the polls in 2018.  The parallels between the two images tell a striking story: Educational opportunity begets increased political power, which in turn increases access to government services.

In order to create a stronger, more representative local democracy, it is therefore incumbent upon us to make greater investments in public education. Furthermore, these investments must be made equitably, with more resources provided to historically underserved neighborhoods, and with an emphasis on high school and postsecondary completion.  Until we address this root cause of low civic engagement, additional voting rights reforms will only be treating the symptoms.

To explore the data for yourself, follow this link and hover over a voting precinct to compare educational attainment and voter turnout. 

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