Texas Democrats came away from Beto O’Rourke’s surprisingly narrow 2018 defeat to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz with a simple plan: register to vote the millions of nonvoting Texans that demographics suggest lean Democrat and electoral victories will follow.
Harris County, the biggest, bluest population center in the state filled with unregistered potential voters, would be the linchpin of that strategy.
Recent statewide defeats and turnout percentages below the national average in Harris County and the state as a whole, however, indicate that gameplan has not entirely panned out.
The first part — registering voters — has worked. Since 2014, Texas’ population has grown by 3 million people. More than 3.5 million people have been added to the state’s voter rolls in that time. More than 500,000 of those new registrations came from Harris County.
The growing voter rolls only shrank the county’s overall turnout percentage, however.
Fewer than one out of five registered voters in Harris County cast a ballot in last week’s elections, which featured an open mayoral seat in Houston and a host of state constitutional amendments, among other local races. Harris County’s turnout in the 2022 gubernatorial election was 9 percent points lower than in 2018.
Statewide, O’Rourke’s return to the top of the ticket in a 2022 challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott also saw depressed voter turnout.
Even in 2020, which saw Texas’ highest turnout percentage this century and a record number of raw votes, Texas still found itself in the bottom handful of states for turnout.
“The problem isn’t just registration, the problem is turnout of registered voters,” said Mike Doyle, chair of the Harris County Democratic Party.
Doyle said he found the low turnout last week concerning heading into 2024, but not insurmountable.
“Getting folks registered, great,” Doyle said. “That’s always part of our strategy, but if we already have a registered voter that’s not turning out and we know when they turn out they’re going to vote Democratic more likely than not, that’s an easier target.”
Those efforts will be focused in state House of Representatives districts controlled by Democrats, Doyle said.
The story is more about strategy than numbers, and I’m a numbers guy. I’ll get to that in a minute. I just want to note that I had some thoughts about what Harris County Democrats should be aiming for in 2024. As far as that goes, I’m pretty satisfied with current Chair Mike Doyle.
I’ve done variations of this post before, so I’m going to keep this simple. If you want to compare numbers in local and state elections, I suggest going back a little further than 2014. This is what things have looked like in Texas since 2002. I’m separating the Presidential and non-Presidential years for more meaningful comparisons.
Year Registered Turnout Pct ====================================== 2002 12,563,459 4,553,979 36.24% 2006 13,074,279 4,399,068 33.64% 2010 13,269,233 4,979,870 37.53% 2014 14,025,441 4,727,208 33.70% 2018 15,793,257 8,371,655 53.01% 2022 17,262,143 8,102,908 45.85% 2004 13,098,329 7,410,765 56.57% 2008 13,575,062 8,077,795 59.50% 2012 13,646,226 7,993,851 58.58% 2016 15,101,087 8,969,226 59.39% 2020 16,955,519 11,315,056 66.73%
And here it is for Harris County:
Year Registered Turnout Pct ====================================== 2002 1,875,777 656,682 35.01% 2006 1,902,822 601,186 31.59% 2010 1,917,534 798,995 41.67% 2014 2,044,361 688,018 33.65% 2018 2,307,654 1,219,871 52.86% 2022 2,543,162 1,107,390 43.54% 2004 1,876,296 1,088,793 58.03% 2008 1,892,656 1,188,731 62.81% 2012 1,942,566 1,204,167 61.99% 2016 2,182,980 1,338,898 61.33% 2020 2,431,457 1,656,686 68.14%
A couple of things to note. One, at both the state and Harris County level, there was more growth in voter registration between 2012 and 2016 than there had been between 2002 and 2014. Voter registration was basically flat between 2002 and 2012. As I’ve said before, in Harris County that was largely due to having a collection of Tax Assessors who were more interested in throwing people off the voter rolls than in registering new voters. Statewide, the effort of Battleground Texas got things moving a bit in 2014, and various groups that sprung up post-Trump like Swing Left took it from there. Those efforts continue today.
As far as turnout goes, the main thing to note is that even as 2022 was a step back from 2018, it was still a step forward from before 2018. We’ll see how 2024 compares to 2020, but 2020 similarly stands way out in comparison to every election before it.
There’s not really much more to say at this point, and bringing in the admittedly unexciting turnout from the 2023 Mayor’s race is a tangent at best – the conditions are just too different for any comparisons. Texas’ turnout is not going to rival any state that has universal mail voting or same-day registration, but I think we are in a generally higher-turnout era than we were in a few years ago. That’s all hypothetical until we get more data points, and the next opportunity for that is next November. I’m sure I’ll check in with another roundup of these numbers at that time.