Voter registration up at deadline for Nov. 6 election
More Texans than ever are registered to vote this year, but experts warn the challenge of getting them to the polls remains.
As of Tuesday morning, more than 15.7 million Texas had registered to vote in the Nov. 6 elections, the Texas Secretary of State’s Office reported. That record number will be higher once the tally from the final day of registration is complete.
Texas ranks bottom of the pack nationwide in voter turnout. The last time more than half of registered voters cast a ballot in a midterm election was 1994, when Democratic Gov. Ann Richards lost to Republican George W. Bush, according to state data. In 2014, the last midterm election, about 14 million people were registered in Texas.
Competitive races like Bush-Richards help drive turnout, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. Since that year, Democrats haven’t won a statewide election.
“If elections aren’t competitive, then one side of the partisan divide feels like they are not being included in the process,” Rottinghaus said.
But this cycle, a barn-burner race for U.S. Senate and a handful of hotly contested Congressional seats could help drive more voters to the ballot box, he said.
“From a tactical point of view, the fact so many groups have been registering voters for so long gives a competitive candidate an opportunity to harness those votes,” Rottinghaus said.
New voters continued to trickle in Tuesday afternoon at Lamar University, where Pete Churton, volunteer deputy registrar, assisted new voters signing up for the first time and helped older ones certify a change of address or simply check to make sure they were in the books.
“Having a voice and being able to vote” motivated graduate student Shelby Hare to drop her bags and sit on the floor of the Speech and Hearing Sciences Building to complete her application.
Another graduate student, Rachel Nguyen, said she “didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to vote,” especially after seeing past elections that didn’t turn out how she’d hoped.
While the rest of the state saw an increase in voter registration, the number of registered voters in the Golden Triangle remained largely the same compared to previous election cycles.
In 2014, there were 146,000 registered voters in Jefferson County, according to tax assessor-collector, Allison Nathan Getz. More than 3,000 residents voted to register for the 2016 elections, bringing the total up to 149,317 registered voters. Usually presidential election years are higher, she said.
The most recent numbers for 2018 — totaling to 148,215 voters as of Tuesday morning — indicate a slight drop from previous years but ahead of the last midterm.
“I think that people are more involved and engaged in the process,” Getz said, pointing to the impact of social media and around-the-clock news services.
“It’s important to be concerned about the state elections at the top of the ticket, but you’ve really got to be focused on the local elections because that’s what impacts your life every day,” she said.
Contested elections in Jefferson County include county judge, county clerk and county treasurer. Also at stake are the Precinct 1 constable and 172nd state district judge seats.
James Nelson, Lamar University political science professor, attributed voter interest to competitive and noncompetitive Southeast Texas political communities. Nelson, whose specialties include American politics and political behavior, defined competitive communities as areas where “two parties have close to the same number of voters.”
“Part of what you may be seeing is that Jefferson County is very competitive. Some counties very much around it are not,” Nelson said. Travis County, which includes the capital city of Austin, was “among the highest” for voter turnout, he added, while rural counties tend to be among the lowest.
As of Tuesday morning, there were 38,124 registered voters in Hardin County, tax assessor-collector Shirley Cook said in an email. Data for previous election cycles were not immediately available.
Of the 12 local Hardin County elections, only the race for Precinct 6 justice of the peace is contested. Eleven Republicans will be unchallenged in the November election.
In Orange County, election officials continued to process voter registration cards Tuesday afternoon, including 62 that had been filed on the last day to register. The dozens of applications include new voters and changes of address, elections administrator Tina Barrow said.
As of last week, the county had 53,300 registered voters, up from 53,064 in the 2016 election cycle. In 2014, there were 50,553 registered voters.
Barrow said it was likely that the U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Ted Cruz and his opponent, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, was drawing people to the polls. Two contested local government races could also play a factor, she said.
Only two of 11 local races are contested, Barrow said.
According to Barrow, political engagement looks like it’s up from the last gubernatorial election in 2014.
“We weren’t this busy” then, she said, adding that media attention on such races as Cruz-O’Rourke has “got a lot of people wanting to come out to vote.”
Getz, the Jefferson County tax assessor-collector, said it’s up to those who registered to now follow up.
“You can register all the people in the world that you want, but people have got to vote,” Getz said. “It doesn’t do us any good to register all these people if they don’t take the time to vote.”
Allie Morris reported from Austin. Haley Bruyn in Beaumont contributed to this report.