Lifelong Fort Worth resident Keisha Braizel Davis never realized how many people did not vote until she volunteered for Barack Obama’s presidential bids in 2008 and 2012.
“That was shocking to me,” she said. “I grew up in a household where that was a rite of passage. You earned that right. People paid for that right. You have to vote.”
Presidential elections tend to draw more people to vote, but participation is low in local races. In November, 838,968 Tarrant County residents voted — a turnout of nearly 71 percent.
Voter participation in Fort Worth City Council elections is a small fraction of that.
Two years ago, 39,410 people voted in the 2019 election to decide who would lead this city of nearly 1 million people, according to figures from the city secretary’s office. That means only 8.9% of the 442,250 registered voters in Fort Worth picked the City Council for the nation’s 13th largest municipality.
Davis, a special education teacher at South Hills High School, wants to change that. She started Vote Fort Worth to increase voter turnout in the upcoming May 1 elections. Voters will pick the city’s first new mayor in 10 years and at least three new members for the City Council.
“Even more important are your local elections — those are the ones that directly affect us,” Davis, 47, said. “After the Atatiana Jefferson incident that happened in Fort Worth, I knew we had to change the Council because at the rate we’re going, nothing is happening. They’re disregarding what happened.”
Fort Worth has had abysmal turnout in its city elections dating back to the 1990s. Among the 30 largest cities in the nation, Fort Worth was ranked 29th in voter turnout, according to a 2016 report by Portland State University. Only Dallas was lower than Fort Worth.
In the past two decades, the city’s highest turnout election was in 2003 when 39,447 voters cast a ballot. The city had 280,987 registered voters in that election. The 2003 ballot featured an open race for mayor — the last before the 2011 contest, which saw the election of Mayor Betsy Price — that garnered seven candidates. Mike Moncrief, a former state senator, representative and Tarrant County judge, won the 2003 race.
Turnout has been so bad in the city that in 1997 — when 5.5% of registered voters showed up at the polls — then-City Secretary Alice Church told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram it was “very sad.”
Low turnout a systemic problem
Emily Farris, a Texas Christian University political science professor who studies local elections, said Fort Worth’s low voter turnout is a systemic problem.
“Fort Worth is unique in how low voter turnout is, but not unique in the sense municipal elections that tend to be off-cycle and nonpartisan generally have lower turnout than the ones people typically think of,” Farris said.
Fort Worth’s elections, Davis said, were designed with that intent. The city’s charter — the document outlining how the municipality is governed — states Fort Worth’s elections will be on the first Saturday of May in odd-numbered years.
“It’s another piece of voter suppression,” Davis said. “They made it that way because they know people are less involved after the November election, so they make it in the middle of it all to make it a solo thing.”
Richard Gonzales, director of the Cesar Chavez Committee of Tarrant County, which advocates for residents to vote, agreed. He said there has been a disconnect among Latinos and getting involved in the political process.
“I believe it was intentional,” Gonzales said. “We’re talking about the history of Jim Crow laws and Jose Crow laws that were implemented with poll taxes, for example, and really the atmosphere of oppression of Latinos and to prevent them from having any power when we were truly a numerical minority.”
Complacency, Davis said, may be another factor driving Fort Worth’s municipal election turnout down.
Many residents, she said, have been fine with the direction of the city and just did not see a need to vote.
“There’s a buzzword in Fort Worth called ‘the Fort Worth way,’” Davis said, referring to the phrase often used to describe how the city makes progress by forming relationships. However, Davis said, those relationships can exclude many.
People will use that expression, Davis said, and say, “It’s not going to change. It’s always going to be the Fort Worth way where the money runs Fort Worth, and there’s nothing we can do about it. What’s the point of voting? Nothing’s going to change.”
Davis does not see it that way. She pointed to the death of Atatiana Jefferson, who a Fort Worth police officer shot and killed while in her home in 2019, and the 2016 arrest of Jacqueline Craig, who had called the police to handle a neighbor who allegedly assaulted her son, as reasons why residents need to vote.
“Nothing will change unless we change,” Davis said, adding the City Council has not taken any major steps toward major policy changes for a more equitable Fort Worth. “We have to turnout the vote and we have to get people out to vote, and we have to have a concerted effort to motivate people to do those things.”
Davis has spent the weeks leading up to the start of the early voting period registering people to vote, telling them why they need to cast a ballot and informing them about the slate of candidates. She told people about the upcoming election and handed out voter registration cards at food distribution events and mobile clinics.
Behind the scenes, Davis has been working to put together an effort to drive people to the polls, including rallies and block parties to get people energized to vote.
The Fort Worth resident even has made business cards with a code people can scan to get all of the information they need to vote.
“I’m taking away every excuse,” Davis said.
The Tarrant County Republican Party is staying out of municipal elections — for now. GOP chairman Rick Barnes said the party is focusing on the special election to replace U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, an Arlington Republican who died in February weeks after testing positive for the coronavirus. That race features 23 candidates.
“I do think when some of these races go to runoffs, we will probably find ourselves more involved — particularly if it ends up being what is on paper a Republican vs. what is on paper a Democrat,” Barnes said. “I say it that way because they don’t report their party status in the municipal elections, so it’s kind of hard to pinpoint them until we know.”
Texas’ 6th Congressional District includes only 9% of Fort Worth, according to Texas Legislative data. Barnes expects the special congressional election will likely increase turnout in those areas.
“It will impact the municipal races the same way that we had last November, when we had municipal elections sitting on top of our presidential elections,” he said. “That boosted numbers across the board for all the municipal elections.”
The Tarrant County Democratic Party — whose chairwoman, Deborah Peoples, is running for mayor — did not respond to a request to comment.
‘It needs systemic change’
Efforts to register more voters and get them to the polls are worthwhile, Farris said, but they do not tackle the root of Fort Worth’s low voter turnout.
“This is a systemic problem, so individual solutions are only going to get us so far,” the TCU professor said. “Those are all great and something we should see more of and encourage, but this is really more of a systemic issue and it needs systemic change.”
Farris suggested Fort Worth could consider moving when it has its elections to an even-numbered year, when people typically have voting on their minds.
“The city could choose — and other cities in Texas have chosen — to conduct their elections on cycle,” she said. “Now that would be a major change. That’s one of the big systemic changes.”
Shifting when City Council elections are held would require Fort Worth to amend its charter — a process that needs voter approval. The city last amended its charter in 2016. One of the approved amendments included increasing the number of Council members to 11 from nine after the 2020 Census.
A charter election is not the only hurdle for changing the election date. It would also require the Texas Legislature to change a law allowing political subdivisions, such as cities and school districts, to move to the November uniform election date.
Farris also suggested more people might vote in a local election if candidates had to align themselves with a party.
“There are benefits to party labels, and one of those benefits is it’s a shortcut to giving us an insight as to who might best fit and represent my interests,” she said. “Without that, it becomes really difficult.”
It’s even difficult for someone like Farris, who studies politics for a living, to keep up with all of the candidates running for City Council this year.
“I couldn’t even name all of the candidates currently running in my district — and I’m a highly engaged voter,” said Farris, whose ballot for District 7 features 10 candidates for the open Council seat.
It’s even harder for voters who may not have the time, resources or even knowledge to understand these races and then decide who to elect, the professor said.
That education component is important to reach Latino voters, Gonzales said. The director of the local Cesar Chavez Committee has not seen much political outreach to his community, which makes up 35 percent of Fort Worth’s population.
“Even though we are now becoming numerically greater, we don’t have the comparable political wherewithal or the resources to exercise that power,” Gonzales said. “It’s the history of our grandfathers and grandmothers who were not politically involved and therefore did not pass on that need to their children.”
The Tarrant County GOP chairman agreed with Farris’s assessment that the nonpartisan nature of municipal elections may be a factor in driving down participation.
“But I think the challenge would be, if we went partisan with all of them, we would just end up with a national conversation at a local level,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure that would be healthy for our community.”
Gonzales also pointed out another possible solution to boost turnout: proper representation among elected officials. The upcoming round of redistricting, he said, would pave the way for that, but the Fort Worth City Council opted to not allow an independent committee to redraw the city’s districts.
“The political white establishment basically is going to try to resist that change. Why? It’s because they want to retain the power,” Gonzales said. “They don’t want to share the power that they should share if we lived in a truly democratic society.”
‘A successful election’
Davis knows how high she would like turnout to be in this year’s elections.
“I actually hope to have twice as many we had in the previous election,” she said. “We had maybe only 40,000 (voters in 2019). I hope we have at least 80,000 this election. I’m doing my darndest. If it doesn’t happen, it’s not for lack of trying.”
Farris has joked that if every city of Fort Worth election voter was brought to the Amon G. Carter Stadium, where the TCU Horned Frogs football team plays, seats would still be available. The stadium holds up to 50,000 people.
Farris is hoping the percentage of registered voters who cast a ballot cracks double digits — a figure Fort Worth has not seen in a city election since 2011, the last time there was an open race for mayor.
“To me, that would be a successful election, which is really quite sad of a benchmark to try to aim to hit,” the political science professor said. “I think it really speaks to the real need for engagement and really questions if Fort Worth can really call itself a democracy.”
A small sliver of Fort Worth’s population has decided who governs one of the state’s major cities. Since 2001, no more than 7% of Fort Worth residents have actually voted in a city election. Last election, just over 4.3% of the city’s population showed up to a poll.
“That to me, as a political scientist, raises questions whether a place can call itself a democracy if only a handful of people are choosing their elected officials,” Farris said.