Time for another chat about voter registration and turnout

Let’s do it.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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.

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6 Responses to Time for another chat about voter registration and turnout

  1. Manny says:

    For years, I wondered why Democrats kept spending time and money registering people when the problem is getting those who are registered to vote to go vote.

    Unless one wants to reinvent the wheel, the party of haters has already provided the solution. Fear, hate, and pocketbook, or how much will it place in my pocket?

    Are Democrats willing to play by the same rule, or is losing an acceptable outcome?

  2. J says:

    I guess the logic was, if we can’t turn out the voters we have then we have to register more. But, I think what motivates Democrats to vote is fundamentally different than what motivates conservatives. It seems pretty clear that Texas Democrats have not figured out what motivates their voters, and I am afraid that I can’t help with that since I cannot imagine not voting, especially with so much at stake.

    Perhaps the Democrats here could link up with other Dem groups in other states that have been successful in turning out their base, for some new strategies and ideas. They will need something to pitch to the national organization in order to get some of the cash that may come with investment in the Senate race against Ted Cruz.

  3. Manny says:

    J people are people; they are not born liberal or fascist. Republicans have been making inroads with Latinos, using money as a motivator and fear of losing their jobs to undocumented. Many Republicans, if not most, believe the lies that they have been fed.

    Down on the border, some of the best-paying jobs are in the oil industry and working for the border patrol.

  4. Joel says:

    one thing at a time. you have to register them before you can get (a percentage of) them to vote.

    another problem may be, however, that those we are targeting to register as likely democratic voters (e.g. on the basis of race, age, or geography) … aren’t really going to vote democratic or at all (e.g. because of spanish-language radio misinformation/qanon programming, or because kids really don’t think biden is any better than trump).

    the problem, as always, is that the TDP is MIA. whatever they are doing ain’t enough, never has been.

  5. I’ve puzzled over this for many years, and events over the last few have convinced me that Democratic voters are motivated by the same things that motivate Republican voters: fear, anger, and hate.

    Democratic politicians generally try to be more issue-oriented. And thats fine as far as it goes, but abortion issues prove my point. People turning out over abortion issues are motivated by fear, anger, and hate.

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