This is University of Houston professor Richard Murray’s commentary on the election. The column is called “Prof 13” because of Dr. Murray’s affiliation as Channel 13’s election analyst:
Early voting is winding down today [last Thursday], so we have some hard numbers to crunch in trying to figure out how the election will end up next Tuesday. With the longest ballot in America, Harris County voters face about 70 down-ballot races for county-wide offices this year, far exceeding the number of choices in any previous General Election. Almost all of these contests are for state district or county courts, and feature candidates, that with few exceptions, are not known to most voters. Nor do these judicial candidates have much capacity to raise money, so using paid advertising to overcome the lack of name identification (ID in political jargon) is not a realistic option.
That poses a real problem for voters, which the majority solves by voting a straight Democratic or Republican party ticket. This produces a vote in every one of these contests since both big parties have nominees running for every county-wide judicial contest. In 2008, 1,188,731 persons voted in Harris County, and 735,407, or about 62%, exercised the straight ticket option at the top of the Texas ballot. Two years ago, Democratic straight ticket voters outnumbered Republicans by about 48,000 votes, which was the principal reason nominees of that party won 23 of 27 county-wide judicial positions. What is likely to happen in 2010 when we have many more local contests for judge?
First, we are going to see a majority of voters again exercise the straight-ticket option. With an even longer ballot and almost no advertising by any candidate except County Judge Ed Emmitt (who is actually not a judicial but rather a county executive office holder) it is hard to imagine a significant drop-off in straight ticket voting this year.
Second, the big Democratic advantage in straight-ticket voting in 2008 is not going to materialize in 2010 if early voting is an indication. Two years ago African Americans voted early in unprecedented numbers. This year, Tea Party folks who are mostly Anglo, conservative, and Republican were the first in line to cast ballots by mail or at early vote stations. On Monday, October 18th, the first day of early, in-person voting, 1,332 persons showed up at the Kingwood Library, a strongly Republican white area. The same day just 588 people cast ballots at the Acres Homes Multi-Service Center in a heavily black and Democratic part of town. That meant there were 2.26 Kingwood voters for every Acres Homes participant. That pattern was evident all over the county for the first week of early voting, meaning Republican candidates were almost certainly building up a big lead in the mail and early vote ballots.
Democratic candidates, including County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, were understandably alarmed when these hard numbers were reported. In a national election climate that is very difficult for Democratic candidates across the country, Harris County began to look like it flip back to a Republican sweep with the GOP winning every county-wide position as was the case from 1996 to 2006. That is possible, but not likely in my view for several reasons.
First, Bill White, while trailing statewide in every public survey, gives the Democrats a fairly strong to-of-the-ballot candidate here in his home county. I think he will carry Harris County, which will provide some benefit to 80+ other Democrats listed on the ballot, but he is not going to generate anything like the party tide the Obama candidacy produced locally in 2008.
Second, from speaking to numerous citizen groups across the county, I find a lot of interest from voters who do not want to vote a straight ticket this year in the judicial races. I don’t discourage that interest because, in my opinion, there are superior candidates on both party lists, so ticket-splitting makes sense in 2010. The bar association poll results and the Houston Chronicle endorsements are two of several indicators of the mixed partisan pattern of qualified candidates this year.
Third, there has been a bit less straight-ticket voting in recent midterm elections in Harris County compared to presidential election years. In 2004 and 2008, an average of 62.9% of all voters voted a straight Democratic or Republican ticket. In 2002 and 2006, the major party straight-ticket vote averaged 51.0%. My guess is that the smaller electorate in non-presidential years is more knowledgeable about local offices and candidacies and thus less inclined to simply click on the straight-ticket option. If that is in fact the case this year, it gives encouragement to the stronger candidates down-ballot irrespective of their party.
Finally, back to the early vote numbers. As in-person voting has picked up across the county, the big Republican edge in the mail + early vote we saw in the first week has steadily eroded. Yesterday there were 1,750 early voters at the Kingwood Library [strong Republican], but there were 1,549 voters at the Acres Homes Service Center [strong Democrat]. Consultant Kyle Johnson’s breakdown of the early + mail ballots show that with nearly 380,000 votes in (which should be more than half the total vote cast this year), voters with a Democratic primary history now equal Republican primary history voters.
To sum up, I still think Republican candidates have the wind at their back in Harris County, but the likelihood of a complete sweep at the courthouse has diminished in recent days. With close contests likely, candidates should be scratching for every possible vote over the next 96 hours.
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I should add that Dr. Murray’s column reflects balloting through Thursday. The Democratic operative who distributed the column described Friday voting in his e-mail as “absolutely boffo” for Democrats. Democratic early voting, especially in the first week, was very low, so a strong turnout on election day is essential if Democrats are to be competitive. However, the Weather Channel is forecasting a.m. thundershowers for Houston on election day. This could depress Democratic turnout.