November 06, 2008
So what happened to the turnout?

That's the question a lot of people are asking.

Where were the voters who supposedly were going to push election turnout in Harris County to breath-taking heights?

They stayed away from the polls, leaving turnout only 2 percentage points beyond the participation rate in the prior presidential race here -- and probably preventing Democrats from sweeping every contest in a formerly Republican county.

That "2 percentage points" figure appears to come from a higher estimate of the total number of registered voters than what's being shown by the County Clerk. A 60.3% turnout rate, which is what the story sidebar gives, yields about 1,964,000 voters. Going by the 2008 results page, the County Clerk uses 1,892,656 as the total registered voters figure. That's lower than what we'd been told before the election. I'm not sure how to reconcile the two; perhaps the CC number doesn't include voters who cast provisional ballots. In any event, if you compare 2004 to 2008 and use the County Clerk numbers, the turnout figure rises from 58.03 to 62.60, a gain of over four and a half points.

Democratic leaders had said total turnout of about 1.3 million would allow them to piggyback on Barack Obama's popularity and defeat all GOP candidates on the local ballot.

Democrats indeed made deep inroads Tuesday, unseating most judicial incumbents and ejecting Sheriff Tommy Thomas, but there was no sweep and no giddy showing of voters.

Local Democratic Chairman Gerald Birnberg said his party struggled to get former supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential primary candidacy to return to the polls and vote for Obama and the rest of the party's slate. Clinton was immensely popular among Hispanic voters in Texas.

"The head wind was the demoralization of many of the Hispanic Hillary Clinton supporters and that was a reality we faced throughout the election," Birnberg said.

As Democratic political consultant Marc Campos of Houston pointed out, Tuesday's election totals put turnout in mostly Hispanic state House districts at 40 to 45 percent, compared to 60 to 65 percent in mostly white, suburban districts as well as mostly black districts.

Campos, a Hispanic, said his party's efforts to motivate Hispanic voters was substandard. Birnberg disagreed, saying that among other things, Democrats aimed at Hispanic households with a recorded telephone message from Clinton urging voters to back every candidate.

It's not exactly news that Campos and Birnberg disagree on matters like this, especially on the question of outreach towards Hispanic voters. Campos has been criticizing the local party for not having such a strategy in place for years. As for the "disaffected Hillary voters" thing, all I can say is that once we got past Labor Day, I never heard anyone talk about that any more. I'm sure some of it was still there, I'm just saying it stopped being a hot topic of conversation.

About 100,000 people who voted in the spring Democratic primary failed to vote in the county's general election, according to Rice University political scientist Bob Stein.

"I don't think they're disinterested in politics. I think it's the way we conduct our elections and how we make it very difficult for people who move around a lot to re-register," he said.

Republican Paul Bettencourt, the voter registrar re-elected as county tax assessor-collector, rejected Stein's theory.

About 100,000 other people easily updated their registrations for the general election, he said. Also, he theorized that turnout would have been much higher if Obama or John McCain or their running mates would have campaigned in Houston.

I've already said that I think having the Obama campaign pay some attention to Texas would have made a difference, so I'll agree with Bettencourt on that point. But let's pause here and break out some numbers, because I think they tell an interesting story. I'm going to compare turnout across the mostly Hispanic and mostly black State Rep districts from 2004 to 2008, since that to me is the salient issue.

HD 04 votes 04 voters 04 pct 08 votes 08 voters 08 pct
140 19,039 48,512 39.25 18,482 45,008 41.06
143 19,566 49,074 39.87 17,712 44,390 39.90
145 21,638 48,909 44.24 20,796 45,985 45.22
148 31,684 60,783 52.13 34,493 60,153 57.34
Tot 91,927 207,278 44.35 91,483 195,536 46.79

131 35,807 65,278 54.85 41,132 66,116 62.21
139 36,714 73,284 50.10 40,443 70,569 57.31
141 36,429 74,294 49.03 43,094 74,876 57.55
142 37,838 75,861 49.88 42,392 72,547 58.43
146 49,157 86,964 56.53 52,562 83,463 62.97
147 40,676 76,962 52.85 44,517 75,882 58.67
Tot 236,621 452,643 52.28 264,140 443,453 59.56

Let's stipulate up front that this is a crude measure, since black and Hispanic voters are everywhere in Harris County, and since some of these districts (like 148) have Anglo areas that generally have high turnout. Be that as it may, the first thing that strikes me is that these ten districts combined to lose over 20,000 registered voters since 2004. Now again, maybe what they've done is gained provisional voters - I don't know what the County Clerk's methodology is - but I don't think it can be disputed that this had an effect on final turnout numbers. That the total number of voters went up by 28,000 when the registered voter pool shrank is impressive. But that leaves a big question: Why did the number of registered voters shrink? I'd like to know the answer to that.

The other point to make is that while turnout did indeed rise more in the black districts than in the Hispanic ones, it was still below the countywide average overall and in every district except 131 and 146. So again, the question has to be asked, what happened? I can't answer these questions without access to much more fine-grained data points. But maybe someone who has access to that data can tackle them.

One more thing: Everyone overestimated the turnout on Election Day based on the high volume of early voting. How much more voting was done early this year than before? Here are the figures for these districts:

HD 04 early 04 total 04 EV% 08 early 08 total 08 EV%
140 4,750 19,039 24.95 7,877 18,482 42.62
143 5,371 19,566 27.45 7,052 17,712 39.81
145 5,666 21,638 26.19 8,996 20,796 43.26
148 9,169 31,684 28.94 18,164 34,493 52.66
Tot 24,956 91,927 27.15 42,089 91,483 46.01

131 13,420 35,807 37.48 26,189 41,132 63.67
139 11,787 36,714 32.10 26,097 40,443 64.53
141 15,087 36,429 41.41 29,333 43,094 68.07
142 14,623 37,838 38.65 27,730 42,392 65.41
146 19,766 49,159 40.21 32,063 52,562 61.00
147 14,722 40,676 36.19 26,519 44,517 59.57
Tot 89,405 236,621 37.78 167,931 264,140 63.58

Let's file those numbers away for future reference. I think the percentage of voters who came out early may have peaked a bit this year, thanks to the heavy efforts to make them do exactly that, but I suspect it won't come down too much from there. The one factor I can't judge is how many people decided that it was a greater hassle to vote early, based on the huge increase in that propensity by others, and will go back to the fuddy-duddy way as a result. My guess is we'll see at least 50% participation in early voting as the new norm, but it won't go past 60% unless there's another concerted push to get people out early. Hold these thoughts for 2012!

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 06, 2008 to Election 2008

I keep hearing the same kinds of things about the national turnout. They thought they were going to get a lot more voters than they did based on early voting.

Posted by: Ginger Stampley on November 6, 2008 9:10 AM

Referencing your November 1 blog entry, my estimate was pretty close. And that was using no math or statistics beyond eyeballing your chart.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on November 6, 2008 4:18 PM

No doubt, Texas Dems would have fared better statewide if the national ticket had campaigned here. I can't blame the Obama team for allocating its resources in other places, but it hurts the Dem statewide candidates when the top of the ticket assigns such a very low priority to TX.

Still, there was a lot of progress at the national level and in Texas urban centers. I'm patiently hoping that 2010 will be the breakthrough year for D candidates in statewide races.

Posted by: Jeff N. on November 6, 2008 4:47 PM
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