Hispanics in Houston underrepresented at the ballot box and in local offices

New report examining civic health issues in Greater Houston also finds naturalized citizens are less likely to discuss politics and register to vote

Style Magazine Newswire | 5/1/2018, 10:57 a.m.
Just more than half of Hispanic voting-age citizens in the Houston metropolitan area are registered to vote, according to a …

HOUSTON – (May 1, 2018) – Just more than half of Hispanic voting-age citizens in the Houston metropolitan area are registered to vote, according to a new report on civic health from the Center for Local Elections in American Politics at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC). This number is far below the percentage of voting-age white and African-American citizens in the region who are registered; both of these groups have a voter registration rate of nearly 70 percent.

The 2018 Houston Civic Health Index, commissioned by Houston Endowment, examines the degree to which Greater Houston residents participate in political discussion, engage in nonpolitical civic behavior, volunteer and interact with one another. It also examines local residents’ activity with regard to voting and running for office. John Lappie, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Kinder Institute’s Center for Local Elections in American Politics (LEAP), authored the report.

Another key finding from the report revealed that naturalized citizens have not been adequately incorporated into the region’s political life. Naturalized citizens are about 12 percentage points less likely to frequently discuss politics than their native-born counterparts, and about 7 percentage points less likely to be registered to vote.

People with Hispanic surnames are also underrepresented in the Harris County electorate and candidate pool and as a share of local elected officials. Only around a tenth of the county’s municipal mayors, city councilmembers and school board trustees have a Hispanic surname, while the turnout rate among Hispanic registered voters is consistently lower than the turnout rate among all registered voters (by about 8 percent in 2016).

“Elections without any Hispanic-surnamed candidate are quite common in Houston and Harris County despite the fact that Hispanic residents now constitute a plurality of the county’s population,” Lappie said.

Women are also underrepresented in the Harris County candidate pool and as a share of local elected officials. According to the report, while women make up approximately two-fifths of school board members, only about one-fifth of mayors and city councilmembers in municipalities within Harris County are women.

Regarding matters of trust and civic engagement, the report shows that only 45 percent of Greater Houston residents trust most or all of their neighbors, about 12 percentage points below the national rate. And while about half of residents reported donating at least $25 to charity annually, only about 5 percent of Greater Houston’s residents said they worked with their neighbors on an annual basis to improve something in their neighborhood.

Lappie said this low level of trust and connectedness is problematic. “If you don’t trust the people you share the neighborhood with, you’re unlikely to work with them to solve community problems,” he said.

“When a community is ‘civically healthy,’ its residents are better able to come together to address its problems, which leads to more-equitable outcomes,” said Ann Stern, president and CEO of Houston Endowment. “The report clearly shows us we have some work to do to improve our region’s civic health.”

“With this first Civic Health Index now released, it’s exciting to think that Houston now has the opportunity to take what it has learned from its thriving economy and rich cultural landscape and apply these same dynamics to civic innovation and civic health,” added Sterling Speirn, CEO of the NCoC.

The study primarily draws on data from the NCoC’s analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), the Kinder Houston Area Survey and the offices of the Harris County clerk and the Texas secretary of state. For the survey, 3,156 Greater Houston residents answered CPS questions about volunteering, and between 846 and 2,312 residents answered questions about civic engagement. The researchers pooled CPS data on volunteering and civic engagement to create a three-year sample, but CPS data on voting and registration are from 2016 only. There were 984 respondents from Greater Houston in the CPS supplement on voting and registration. The responses were weighted to account for demographic differences.

The goal of the report is to help frame discussions with community leaders and local stakeholders about how to address and improve specific indicators of Greater Houston’s civic health, Lappie said.

The report is available online at https://kinder.rice.edu/research/2018-civic-health-index.