Policies Affecting Civic Participation in Houston and Texas

A project of Houston in Action
Published May 2019

Suzanne Pritzker, Graduate College of Social Work, University of Houston
Melissa Marschall, Political Science and Center for Local Elections in American Politics, Rice University
Denae King, Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs, Texas Southern University

With special assistance from the following graduate assistants: Kaycee Kube, Yuki Kishino, Blake Coleman, Aishwarya Narasimhan, and research fellows in the Center for Justice Research, Edidiong Mendie, Corey Clay and Devonte White.

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Executive Summary


Commissioned by Houston Endowment, this report assesses systemic barriers and opportunities for civic engagement in Harris County, examining both political and social arenas of civic action. It provides a systematic audit of federal, state and local statutes and other policy statements pertaining to civic engagement in Harris County. It summarizes relevant policy and reports data from a variety of sources to paint a comprehensive picture of what participation looks like on the ground, where potential barriers to political and social engagement are found, and what community leaders think about the civic attitudes and behaviors of the residents and constituents they serve. The objective of this report is to frame discussions with community residents, leaders, and local policymakers about how to address specific barriers to participation in Harris County in order to strengthen and improve the civic health of Greater Houston.

Data Sources

One-on-one exploratory conversations were conducted with grassroots and nonprofit community leaders both in person and by telephone from June 2018 to September 2018. These conversations examined leaders’ perceptions of civic life, such as voting activity and community engagement, as well as perceptions about barriers to civic engagement in Harris County. Findings from these conversations, as well as extensive discussions with the Houston in Action Policymaker Taskforce, guided selection of core areas of study. We utilized a wide range of sources to conduct research for this report. These included statutes, government websites, newspapers, research reports, academic papers, as well as policy analyses and state-level comparisons produced by reputable policy organizations.

In addition, this study relies primarily on two data sources. The first is the Election Administration and Voting Surveys (EAVS) compiled by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) (2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016). These biennial surveys include state-by-state and jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction data on a wide variety of topics related to election policy, including voter registration, military and overseas voting, domestic civilian by-mail voting, polling operations, provisional ballots, voter participation, and election technology. For this report, we extracted and summarized responses for all Texas counties and compared them with responses both for all electoral jurisdictions in the U.S. and for Harris County. The second data source is election results from the Harris County Clerk’s office and the Texas Secretary of State, which have been collected and processed by the Center for Local Elections in American Politics (LEAP).

Key Findings


Public Expression and Participation

Across the U.S., a relatively small percentage of respondents contact officials to bring a specific problem to their attention or to express their opinion on an issue. While about one in ten residents of the U.S. report contacting a public official at least once every year, about half as many, one in 20 residents of Greater Houston report doing so, according to the 2018 Houston Civic Health Index. In Houston and Harris County, as with many municipalities around the country, laws guiding public participation predate recent participatory innovations. Municipal bodies within the metropolitan area vary widely in how they structure participation and public comment, each with distinct limitations on when and how long the public may speak at government meetings.

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Voter Registration

Texas ranks 43rd among U.S. states in the percentage of its citizens registered to vote (78%). Harris County lags considerably behind the state, with only 66% of its citizens registered. Potential structural barriers that may contribute to these low registration rates include: lack of internet-based registration, the comparatively early voter registration deadline, failure of some Texas voter registration agencies to provide voter registration services outlined by federal and state law, lack or absence of Volunteer Deputy Voter Registrar (VDVR) trainings in Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese, and lack of compliance with the state’s high school voter registration law.

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Casting a Ballot

Voter turnout in Harris County was 61% in the 2016 Presidential Election, putting it one percentage point ahead of Texas, which ranked 47th out of 50 states in turnout. Structural barriers to electoral participation in Harris County may include: Texas’ voter ID law, disenfranchisement of convicted felons on parole or serving probation, challenges surrounding access to translators, limited hours for early voting, placement of and/or last-minute changes to polling locations (e.g., not accessible or near campuses)

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Election Administration

Election administration involves a complex set of federal, state, and local laws that play a fundamental role in determining when, where, and how Harris County residents register to vote and cast their ballots. While Texas has been an early adopter of some reforms that seek to reduce the costs of voting (e.g., Texas was the first state to implement early in-person voting in the 1980s and approved county-wide vote centers in 2005), it also has a long history of diluting and disenfranchising minority votes and voters. Our review of the evidence suggests that in recent years Harris County has not taken significant steps to increase voter participation and engagement, and has instead, made decisions that sometimes limit residents’ opportunities to register and vote, and/or increase the costs of electoral participation.

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Running for Office

Barriers to running for office are fairly low in Harris County, with minimal age and residency requirements, and the statewide option to submit petition signatures instead of paying filing fees. Women and Hispanics continue to be underrepresented as candidates in nearly all elected offices. Consequently, both groups are also underrepresented in elected office.

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Volunteering & Charitable Giving

On par, most government action to support volunteerism in Harris County comes from federal rather than state or local statutes, and most volunteerism to date in Texas is of a voluntary nature. Only a small portion of Greater Houston respondents report traditional volunteering through an organization or engaging in more informal volunteerism (e.g., doing favors frequently for a neighbor). A larger percentage of area respondents, just under half, reported donating at least $25 to charity. Overall, the 2018 Houston Civic Health Index Report found that despite Greater Houston’s economic and cultural vibrancy, it ranks on average 36th out of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the country on 21 indicators of civic health. That said, the Houston region saw extensive informal volunteering in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, and its experience with volunteerism around national disasters has helped it become a leader in making national change in how FEMA counts volunteerism in supporting regions through crisis and recovery.

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Youth Civic Engagement

Extensive research finds that civic engagement is habitual, with young people who are civically engaged remaining involved as they move forward into adulthood. However, Greater Houston sees stark differences in civic participation on the basis of age, with young adults voting, contacting and visiting public officials, and attending public meetings at much lower rates than their older counterparts. Few higher education institutions in the Houston area host voting locations on campus, limiting voting accessibility to college students. Texas offers engagement opportunities to high school youth to serve as election poll workers, and allows youth 17 years and 10 months to preregister to vote; though 19 states allow young people to preregister to vote as early as 16 or 17 years old. Statewide (and in Harris County) opportunities to increase young people’s civic engagement laws often are not fully implemented. For example, while Texas law requires high schools to register young voters, the majority of Harris County high schools do not appear to do so. While Texas law provides procedures that allow elementary and secondary students to participate in mock elections held in conjunction with official elections, this opportunity appears rarely used in Harris County.

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