October 18, 2008
Vote early but pick your spot

Remember how crowded the early voting locations were during the primary, and how so many people were reporting wait times of up to two hours to cast their (Democratic) primary ballot? Well, things will be considerably busier starting Monday.

An unprecedented half-million Harris County voters are expected to cast early ballots for the presidential race and other offices during the two-week early voting period, an increase sparked in part by political parties and candidates urging supporters to vote before Election Day.

In response to the forecast of a record-high early vote that starts Monday in Texas, county officials have added extra polling stations and voting booths and new auxiliary equipment to keep waiting lines as short as possible.

For a point of comparison, some 51,000 votes were cast early in the Republican primary, and 170,000 more were cast in the Democratic primary. That means we're looking at more than twice the traffic at those locations this time around. Plan your trip accordingly - I'll probably skip my preferred location on West Gray and use either the Fiesta on Kirby and Old Spanish Trail or Moody Park. Whatever the case, getting there right as it opens is likely to be best.

There are several reasons for the anticipated increase in early voting.

The percentage of votes cast early has climbed with every past election, and the trend is expected to continue as voters become more comfortable with the idea of getting voting out of the way before Election Day.

In 2004, almost 40 percent of the Harris County vote was banked by the end of October. The total county vote then was 1.08 million, a 58 percent turnout of all registered voters.

With the participation rate expected to climb along with the use of the early voting options, experts say at least half of the Harris County votes -- a half-million or more -- will be cast before Nov. 4.

I'm not sure I agree with the "at least half" part. Early turnout for Harris was about 38% of the final total (221,000 early votes, 580,000 votes total), or 41% if you include the 20,000 mail ballots as early votes. Here are the early vote totals from the last four elections in Harris County:

Year EV total Vote total EV %
2000 252,083 974,822 25.9
2002 166,694 648,077 25.7
2004 436,896 1,067,968 40.9
2006 191,533 589,348 32.5

A big jump in 2004, but a backslide in 2006. Maybe the Presidential election years are different. For what it's worth, here's how the early vote went in the primaries those years in Harris, compared to the November vote:

Year EV total Vote total EV % Ratio
2000 35,204 212,820 16.5 0.64
2002 34,625 171,825 20.2 0.78
2004 35,381 152,645 23.2 0.57
2006 33,362 109,848 30.4 0.94

"Ratio" compares the early vote percentage for primaries to that of the general. The dip in 2004 can be easily explained - that was a high-interest general election, but a dud of a primary, especially on the Republican side. What I'm trying to get at here is that I'm not convinced there's enough data to say what trends exist other than noting that early voting has become more popular in recent years. Whether that has peaked or still has room to climb, I couldn't say.

For what it's worth, a half-million early votes would represent a countywide turnout of 1.25 million if we vote early at the same rate as in 2004. Other values are left as an exercise for the reader. I'll see what it looks like on November 1 and do the math thing again from there. In the meantime, the early voting locations and schedules for Harris County are here (PDF). Plan accordingly, come to the early vote rally at Discovery Green on Sunday night at 7, and get ready to vote.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 18, 2008 to Election 2008
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