voter turnout

Texas Has Already Exceeded Its 2016 Turnout. Here’s What That Means.

Photo: Sergio Flores/Getty Images

Texans have already cast more ballots in the 2020 election than they did in 2016 — and they’ve still got another full day of early voting and Election Day itself to go.

A combination of heightened enthusiasm and pandemic-induced changes to election rules has yielded record levels of early voting nationwide. But as of Friday morning, only Texas and Hawaii had witnessed a surge large enough to surpass their 2016 totals. And unlike the Aloha State, Texas is an Electoral College battleground this year.

Texas does not include the party registration of voters in its early ballot tallies. Conventional wisdom assumes that high turnout in the Lone Star State benefits Democrats. And for good reason: Texas perennially posts one of the lowest turnout rates in the nation, and the nonvoting population skews young and Hispanic, demographic blocs that tend to lean blue. So far though, county-level turnout data paints a mixed picture for the Biden campaign.

The (very) good news for Joe & Co. is that the state’s urban and suburban counties have been the primary drivers of the turnout spike, with Harris County (home to Houston) mounting an especially impressive showing. Nearly 1.4 million people have already cast ballots in Harris, setting a new record for the county. University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus had previously estimated that total turnout in Harris would need to hit around 1.5 million for Biden to have a shot at winning statewide. With the Election Day still to come, it is highly likely that Harris will clear that benchmark.

Among the state’s other early voting hot spots are the suburbs surrounding Dallas. In the pre-Trump era, much of this territory was reliably Republican. But the president’s culture-war histrionics (and misogyny), combined with a steady influx of college-educated professionals into Texas’s metro areas, appear to be making the Texas suburbs vote more like their counterparts in the Northeast. In other battleground states, suburban areas are a key source of strength for the Democratic ticket, with suburban voters across Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin favoring Biden over Trump by an 11-point margin in one recent poll.

The bad news for Democrats lies in the Rio Grande Valley, an area that is 90 percent Mexican American, and among the youngest regions in the state. It has also been hit hard by COVID-19; Hidalgo County alone has suffered nearly 2,000 COVID deaths and 35,603 confirmed cases. In part for this reason, early voting in Hidalgo is up only one percent compared to 2016, even as every other large Texas county has seen an increase of no less than 15 percent. If turnout in heavily Hispanic areas of Texas lags further behind the rest of the state than usual this year, Democrats’ path to victory will narrow.

Regardless, no matter how the final vote tally shakes out, the existing data already offers Democrats one vital lesson: Obscure local elections can have enormous consequences.

The explosion of early voting in Harris County wasn’t set off by Trump alone. In 2018, a 27-year-old Colombian American immigrant named Lina Hidalgo narrowly defeated an 11-year Republican incumbent to become Harris’s “county judge,” its top elective position. In 2016, Harris spent roughly $4 million on administering its elections. Under Hidalgo’s leadership, the county pumped that budget up to $31 million: Enough money to triple the number of early voting sites in the county, and keep some locations open 24 hours during the final days of early voting, providing workers with an opportunity to cast a ballot, no matter what their shift schedules are like. As NBC News reports:

It was after 8 p.m. Tuesday when Hector Martinez came straight from work to an early-voting site near his home, flicked off his headlights and headed inside to cast a ballot.

Four years ago, the early-voting location nearest his office closed at 5 p.m. most weeknights, making it impossible for Martinez to get there after his evening shift as a maintenance worker. As a result, he wound up waiting in line for nearly an hour to vote on Election Day in 2016.

“This was much easier,” Martinez, 47, said Tuesday, after voting at the Bayland Park Community Center in southwest Houston. “No line. No problem.”

“What we’re seeing is, when you build it they come,” Hidalgo told the outlet. “We’ve learned that we can’t blame the historic lack of participation on the voters themselves. It’s been these obstacles.”

If Biden carries Texas Tuesday, it’s quite plausible that a razor-thin Democratic victory in a county-judge race will be a (if not the) reason why.

Meanwhile, in the likely “tipping-point state” of Pennsylvania, Democrats’ success in recent state Supreme Court elections has had potentially decisive implications for the 2020 race.

Across the last two federal elections, more than 750,000 mail-in ballots were rejected, about 1.2 percent of all such ballots cast. A leading cause of ballot cancellation was “signature mismatch” — an unscientific practice in which election administrators with no training in signature analysis determine that a signature on a mail ballot differs too much from the signature on that voter’s registration to be authentic. In a year when Democrats are expected to vote by mail at a much higher rate than Republicans, signature-mismatch rejections could have meaningfully impacted the outcome in Pennsylvania — and thus, the Electoral College’s verdict. But the Democratic majority on the state’s Supreme Court prohibited signature-based ballot rejections in a ruling last week. In a more high-profile (and contested) decision, the court also ruled that election officials must count mail ballots postmarked by Election Day, but which arrive up to three days after. These rulings come on top of the court’s 2018 decision striking down Pennsylvania’s gerrymandered congressional map, a ruling that modestly eased the Democrats’ path to a House majority.

All of which is to say: Keep an eye out for low-profile, local elections. They have the potential to determine how presidential races (and thus, world history) turn out.

Texas Has Exceeded Its 2016 Turnout. Here’s What That Means.