Annette Strauss Institute responds to low voter turnout

Nicole Cobler

Texans are some of the least engaged citizens in civic life in the United States, according to a national index.

The low ranking was spotlighted on campus Saturday during the Texas Conference on Civic Life. In 2010, Texas ranked 51st in voter turnout among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., according to the Texas Civic Health Index. UT’s Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life produced the report in partnership with the National Conference on Citizenship.

In political participation, the report showed the top two reasons Texans said they did not vote in 2010 were because they were too busy, and they felt like their vote didn’t matter. Political participation also correlated with race and ethnicity, finding that the white population was twice as high in voter turnout than the Hispanic population.

In last week’s election, only 15 percent of registered voters in Travis County cast a ballot.  

At the conference, students, faculty and residents from around the state discussed the future of civic engagement in Texas and how they can work together toward greater civic health.

A variety of speakers at the conference addressed the statistics in The Texas Civic Health Index and allowed audience members to interact with each other about the issues they thought were important in their communities.

Institute director Regina Lawrence said the report’s civic health indicators reflect social connectedness, political participation and civic involvement.

“Unfortunately, one thing we found is that Texas is not doing so well compared to other states,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence said one glimmer of hope for Texas’ low civic engagement is the state’s rank as 16th in social connectedness, which the institute describes as frequently interacting and trusting neighbors and family.

Lawrence said the conference aimed to increase community interaction allowing participants to discuss issues that were important to them in their neighborhoods.

Kathryn Flowers, graduate research assistant at the institute, said the conference allowed people to share the issues that are important to them, including a station to create a visual collage of their neighborhood identity.

“It’s important to do civic engagement activities like this where people aren’t doing research and aren’t being pushed to do anything specific,” Flowers said. “Strauss is about engaging people wherever they are on the political spectrum.”

The event gave citizens the opportunity to talk about what policies they would like their representatives on Austin City Council to address.

Ann Stehling, government senior and administrative assistant at the institute, said that the dim lighting and crime in West Campus were her biggest concerns.

“I would really appreciate having a city councilman who is concerned about the safety of the students in West Campus and for women especially who may not have a man to walk home with them every night,” Stehling said.