Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

I want to say this as simply and emphatically as possible: Too few Houstonians voted in this year’s general election for mayor.

Much pondering has been done about the reasons behind this year’s dismal, 17-percent turnout. And the consensus seems to be that voters weren’t inspired by the slate of mayoral contenders or the nonpartisan nature of the race.

While there were more voters this year than in years’ past, that’s not a good enough barometer for engagement in a metropolitan area that consistently grows by more than 1,000 residents every single week. Given Houston’s population increase, the share of registered voters who cast ballots this year was actually smaller than the 2019 and 2015 elections during which Mayor Sylvester Turner was elected.

This city has to do something to reverse this trend. And by that, I don’t — for once — mean City Hall. I mean us: You, me and the folks on your street have to work together to increase voter engagement.

Luckily for us, even within this lackluster election year, the overwhelming passage of Proposition B served as a beacon of inspiration that can show us just how to accomplish such a mission. It’s a perfect, timely example of grassroots community activism that, as one of the lead organizers told me, “changed hearts and minds” across the city.

Joe Cutrufo, Executive Director of BikeHouston, poses for a portrait outside Edgar Allan Poe Elementary School on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Houston. BikeHouston has endorsed Yes on Prop B. (Antranik Tavitian / Abdelraoufsinno)

In essence, the proposition is a referendum on the voting structure of the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which distributes millions of dollars in federal funding across the greater Houston region, but currently only offers two seats each on its 37-member board for Houston and Harris County, despite the fact that the city and county are home to 57 percent of the area’s residents. The proposition passed with 65 percent of the vote — a massive feat, considering that “maybe 5 percent of Houstonians even knew what H-GAC was one year ago,” said Evan Choate, the campaign manager for Fair For Houston, the political action committee behind the proposition.

How does a group of nine Houstonians move an issue from relative obscurity to a major political talking point and a two-thirds victory in just 11 months?

“It was,” Choate said, “a heavy lift.”

That heavy lift started a year ago this week, with paperwork to create the PAC that became Fair For Houston. But it really took off in the public’s eyes early in January, when the Fair For Houston folks began gathering the signatures needed to place a proposition on November’s ballot. Any group can add a proposition to a municipal ballot here in Houston, as long as they obtain verified signatures of 20,000 registered voters. To play it safe, Choate and his team submitted more than 23,000 signatures to City Hall in July. Then his team turned its attention to educating potential voters far beyond their initial 23,000 supporters.

The process included campaign classics like block-walking and old-fashioned yard signs. But it was an investment in detailed voter data that helped Choate and others apply a surgical precision to their efforts that saved time and money along the uphill journey.

Spend an hour or so talking to those involved in the effort, and you’ll see that their infectious passion obviously served as a superhero strength as well.

Their process provides a lesson for anyone who wants to follow their model.

“There are opportunities for bipartisan changes that we can make that will improve the quality of life for Texans, but you’ve got to be creative,” said Molly Cook, an organizer for Fair For Houston who previously challenged Mayoral Candidate John Whitmire for his state senate seat in the 2022 Democratic primary.  “You’ve got to be scrappy. You’ve got to build a coalition the right way. You’ve got to do education, and you’ve got to raise money.” 

It’s, obviously, a lot of work.

“But there are opportunities, and this was just nine Houstonians who got pissed off enough, and worked hard,” Cook said. “And there are more of those opportunities.”

If you’re a loyal reader (A, thank you, and B) you know where I’m going with this. As I wrote in October, there’s a relatively straight-forward solution that could help the city of Houston increase the number of voters who turn out to vote in mayoral elections: We could change the year in which those elections are held, as Austin voters elected to do in 2021 with the passage of Proposition D.

Austin’s proposition was “born from the basic philosophy that we think a mayoral election should be held when the electorate that most reflects the population of the city is voting,” said Jim Wick, a political consultant who was instrumental in Austin’s 2021 amendment. And time and time again, those years in which the voting pool reflects the electorate as a whole are years in which turnout is at its highest.

What happened two years ago in Austin shows that it’s possible to transform ho-hum municipal elections into something treated as a top priority. And what happened here just last month shows that we don’t have to look to a city like Austin as the only example of a place where passionate residents can make real changes to such city structures. It’s possible here in Houston.

Imagine, if we could double the number of people who voted for our next mayor — and along the way excite, engage and inspire twice the number of people we’ve seen vote in this election cycle.

Now that would be a resounding win for our city.

Share your Houston stories with me. We can start on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Or you can email me at [email protected].

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

Maggie Gordon is the Landing's senior storyteller who has worked at newspapers across the country, including the Stamford Advocate and the Houston Chronicle. She has covered everything from the hedge fund...