For Democrats trying to explain how they can win in Texas, the line has long been that it’s not a Republican state, it’s a nonvoting state. The second half of that claim has been true historically: Texas has routinely brought up the rear on lists of states ranked by voter participation. But 2020 is setting up to be the year when that changes. As of Thursday evening—that is, after just three days of early voting—a whopping 2.63 million Texans had cast their ballots, either in person or by mail, for the November 3 election. That’s more than 15 percent of all registered voters.
To put it plainly, that’s a pretty big honkin’ deal. As of Friday morning, lines around the state were still long, and early reports from county clerks indicated that the pattern would probably hold true for at least another day. If the current rate of almost 900,000 voters a day does hold through Friday evening, almost twice as many Texans will have voted in the first four days of 2020 than in the same time frame in 2016. Does that data point alone allow us to surmise what the outcome will be in November? Not exactly, but there are a few things we can glean from the overwhelming enthusiasm among Texans to participate early in electoral democracy this fall.
Many Large Counties Have Seen Huge Turnout Growth
The biggest increase in any large Texas county comes in Denton, north of Dallas. There, 117,891 voters have cast ballots, an 86 percent jump over the 2016 total of 63,166 in the first three days of early voting. Woo doggy. Other big gainers include Galveston County (up almost 49 percent), Cameron County in the Rio Grande Valley (up just over 50 percent), and Corpus Christi’s Nueces County (almost 53 percent).
Participation Is Growing in the Largest Cities, Too
For the most part, the counties that have seen the biggest spike in turnout are suburban ones with populations of less than a million. They’re not small, exactly (Denton County has more residents than four U.S. states!), but the state’s largest counties are home to millions of Texans. In those counties the raw turnout numbers needed to make large percentage increases have to be huge.
Take Travis County, home to Austin, for example. Through three days of early voting in the reliable Democratic stronghold and one of the highest-participation parts of the state, more than 16 percent of registered voters had already cast ballots—a solid number but a smidge under the percentage that had voted at this point in 2016. Why hasn’t that figure exploded the way it has in Denton or Galveston counties? Likely because virtually the entire county is now registered to vote, so a modest increase in turnout—there have been 16,750 more voters than this point in 2016, a 14 percent increase—actually represents a smaller percentage of registered voters.
In Dallas County, turnout has climbed modestly over the past few general elections. After three days of early voting, 209,000 voters—15 percent of those who’ve registered—cast ballots. That’s about 25,000 more than had voted by this point in 2016, a jump of close to 13 percent. Not bad!
There are similar stories in Bexar and Tarrant counties, home to San Antonio and Fort Worth, respectively. But then there’s the outlier of Houston and Harris County (more on that below).
Statewide, These Aren’t Necessarily New Voters
A big jump in early voting turnout doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be a corresponding jump in the number of voters overall. Early voting guru Derek Ryan, whose daily newsletter tracks the state’s turnout data, notes that almost 90 percent of the voters who’ve cast their ballots thus far have previous voting history in Texas. Some may be lapsed voters who’ve sat out an election cycle or two, but high enthusiasm among regular voters may also help explain why so many are voting early. For now, we shouldn’t assume new voters will make up an unprecedented share of the electorate.
New Voters Could Still Be Enough to Tip Elections
That said, even if only 10 percent of voters end up being newcomers, it’s still likely to shake up a lot of elections. The last time Texas saw a major spike in turnout in a presidential year was, er, 2016 (turnout had been relatively flat since 2004 before then). That year the state went from being plus-16 for Mitt Romney in 2012 to being plus-9 for Donald Trump.
For the state’s electoral votes to swing to Joe Biden, it’ll take winning over a lot of 2016 Trump voters. But when it comes to local races, small increases in new voters can tip an election. There are a slew of congressional districts that are newly competitive in 2020, where Democrats need to improve their margins over the previous election by only a few points to unseat an incumbent (there are also two districts where Republican challengers hope to do the same to a Democrat). Notably, these new voters aren’t evenly distributed across Texas, and it’ll be worth following Ryan’s data in the weeks ahead to see where the first-time voters are located.
Harris County Might Be the Story of the Election
The number of registered voters in Harris County is up by a modest amount over 2016, about an 11 percent increase—not far off from increases in the other big Texas counties. But the turnout through three days of early voting? Hoo boy: there’s been an increase of nearly 40 percent so far, as 112,000 more Harris County voters have cast their ballots than in the first three days of early voting in 2016. We don’t know who they have all voted for and what exactly this means for Joe Biden and Donald Trump—Hillary Clinton won Harris County by twelve points in 2016, and Beto O’Rourke took it by seventeen two years later—but we can say this with some certainty: any polling model that looked at the state’s largest county and assumed that turnout would be roughly similar to that of 2016 missed a bunch of voters.