Generating Election Interest…When There Isn't Any

Just three weeks before the runoff Election — Houston's candidates for mayor and city controller are in a statistical dead heat. Annise Parker leads Gene Locke by three percentage points in the KUHF-11 News survey. The candidates for controller are also in a three point divide. But what is unusual is that so late in the campaign season a large chunk of voters still don't know who they'll vote for. Laurie Johnson reports.

Councilmembers Ronald Green and MJ Khan are in the run-off to become Houston's next controller, essentially the chief financial officer for the city. The KUHF-11News survey shows Green has a slight lead with 25 percent of people saying they'll vote for him, compared to Khan's 22 percent.

But Rice University Political Scientist Bob Stein, who authored the survey, says 46 percent of respondents don't even know who they'll vote for on December 12th.

"These are not candidates that have been aggressive about campaigning. Ron Green was really doing some mailings, he was on the radar screen, he's an African-American, he's been on council for three terms. So he was well-known to voters, men and women who show up. MJ Khan didn't do virtually any campaigning. He also is a three-term incumbent and should have been well-known, but he was not from an at-large seat, he was from a single-member seat so he hadn't been on the ballot as widely to voters."

This isn't the kind of race blanketed with TV ads and billboards. Ronald Green says it is frustrating that people aren't taking much interest in this election.

"And part of the flip side of that is there are some people who like the status quo. And as a current sitting councilmember, I take that compliment; however, there are some changes, the election is here. Bill White won't be the mayor, Ronald Green won't be a city councilmember. We already know that. So now we've got to take it to the next level and we've got to make some changes."

MJ Khan says he thinks more people have made a decision than the poll indicates. But he acknowledges the controller's race is low-profile and it may be hard to get people to the election booth right in the middle of the holidays.

"If we want to be involved in the political process, if we want to make sure that our voices are heard, we need to vote. I cannot emphasize it enough, everybody needs to come out and vote."

Both candidates are running grassroots campaigns, knocking on doors, shaking hands at events and mobilizing their voting base. Despite that, Stein says the candidates aren't reaching enough of the voters to generate interest.

"I don't think the voters are uninformed. I don't think the voters not aware, they know it's important, that's why they're there. But sometimes it's the candidate's responsibility to tell them who they are, what they stand for, what they will do. And I think in the vast majority of these races, because of the bad economy, the very strong mayor that we have now and his popularity, these are voters who have simply not been able to hear from the candidates."

And that's even more true for the three council races on the run-off ballot. According to our survey, two incumbents, Sue Lovell and Jolanda Jones, hold slim leads over their challengers. And the race between Stephen Costello and Karen Derr, which Costello leads by four points, is practically unheard of outside political circles. As many as 65 percent of likely voters say they're undecided in those races.

Laurie Johnson. KUHF-Houston Public Radio News.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...