Enthusiastic Texans turned out in droves at the polls when early voting began last week, signaling that Texas might be shaking off its reputation as a nonvoting state.
When polls first opened on Oct. 13, voters lined up and waited patiently to cast ballots, helping shatter records for the first day of early voting.
Texas Democrats took credit for turning out their voters en force, pointing to milestones never before achieved.
“Voter turnout in Harris County exceeded the first-day turnout in the entire state of Georgia,” the Texas Democratic Party announced on its website. “More than 128,000 Harris County residents cast their ballots (with final tabulations still coming), shattering the previous record of 68,000 on the first day of early voting in the county.”
“Texas Democrats are rising,” the party’s statement continued. “After the first day of early voting, it’s clear that energy is on our side, and Texans are ready to turn out state blue.”
With record numbers of voters eager to participate, more than 4.6 million in-person and mail-in ballots were cast by Oct. 19. That amounted to 27.2 percent of the state’s 16.9 million registered voters.
Democratic strongholds of Harris, Dallas, Bexar and Travis counties recorded the largest totals of combined in-person and mail ballots among the state’s 254 counties. Harris County led the state through Oct. 19 with 719,840 in early in-person and mail-in ballots cast, followed by Dallas County, with 392,774 ballots, Bexar County with 313,825 and Travis with 268,497.
Tarrant County, the largest Republican County in the country that is trending purple, saw 313,245 ballots cast through Oct. 19.
Texas became an epicenter of legal battles throughout much as the year as Democrats and voting rights advocates locked horns with Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and other state officials over the expansion of mail-in voting and wider access to mail-ballot drop-off boxes to make it safer and easier for Texans to vote during the coronavirus pandemic.
But the courtroom drama didn’t end there. Abbott prevailed after being sued by members of his own party over executive overreach for his decision to extend early in-person voting by a week due to the pandemic.
Despite concerns that Democrats would be fearful of voting in-person during the pandemic, their turnout during the first week of early voting has turned to worries about having their votes counted, political observers say.
“Turnout in week one of early voting was blockbuster and higher than in 2016 in most urban counties but also in unexpected places like Denton County,” said Brandon J. Rottinghaus, professor and Pauline Yelderman Endowed Chair of political science at the University of Houston.
“Enthusiasm and fear about voting rights pushed Democrats to ballot boxes in big numbers early,” Rottinghaus said. “Democrats want to see their ballots in the boxes as soon as possible.”
Houston and Harris County received national attention for its initial whopping rush of voters at the start of early voting. But it was Denton County, on the northern fringes of Dallas-Fort Worth, that had the largest increase in early voting compared to 2016. After the first four days of early voting, 27% of Denton County’s registered voters had cast ballots compared to 18% by the fourth day in 2016.
While large swaths of Denton County are still rural, the county is rapidly transitioning to suburban with construction of new homes and the influx of newcomers brought to Dallas-Fort Worth area by companies such as San Francisco-based Charles Schwab, which opened a sprawling new corporate campus on the Tarrant-Denton county line early this year.
Schwab already has 2,500 employees based at the new Westlake campus but plans to have as many as 6,000 workers based there now that the financial services giant has completed a $22 billion acquisition deal of rival TD Ameritrade. This location will become the corporate headquarters for the combined Schwab firm.
Despite the city of Denton being home to the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University, Denton County traditionally has been a Republican stronghold, but it is uncertain whether that is still the case, political observers say.
“With all these new people coming from California and other places, there will be greater diversity, more educated people and suburban women who tend to support Democrats,” said Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic research and political support organization. “There is no way of knowing that this early, but there are certainly a lot of energized voters there.”
Tarrant County, where Beto O’Rourke narrowly beat Ted Cruz in 2018, could also see more political upsets in this election, continuing the county’s shift from red to blue, Angle said.
“Arlington has been changing for the past 10 years,” Angle said. “We could see some upsets in state house seats and possibly other races.”
With early voting continuing through Oct. 30, the number of early voters is predicted to drop off, but Republicans and Democrats are still expected to participate in large numbers.
“Democrats were strong out of the chute in the first few days, but Republicans followed with big numbers in subsequent days,” Rottinghaus said. “The record-setting turnout will continue but is likely to taper off after the second week of early voting.
“The state will ultimately see record turnout, which puts Democrats in striking distance of winning statewide but will absolutely mean picking up a bunch of down-ballot seats.”