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Early Rise

In the state's 15 largest counties, early voting has spiked. The percentage of registered voters who have already cast their ballots is nearly twice what it was at the same point back in 2006: 5.2 percent of registered voters this time, compared to 2.7 percent four years ago.

Travis County's Democratic Coordinated Campaign Headquarters, days before the 2010 general election.

For nearly half a million Texas voters, Election Day’s already over. Early voting allows those with minds set and schedules tight to cast a ballot anytime this week or next — and numbers from the Texas secretary of state show twice as many people are taking advantage of the option as did in 2006. The percentage of registered voters in the state's 15 largest counties who have already cast their ballots has jumped from 2.7 percent after the first three days in '06, the last gubernatorial election cycle, to 5.2 percent in the first three days this year.

"We are pleasantly surprised that they are this high," says Secretary of State Hope Andrade. "We're remaining optimistic that the numbers will keep growing."

While early turnout in this non-presidential year won’t compare to the supercharged numbers posted in 2008, the increase this time is particularly striking in Hidalgo County, where raw turnout is up 236 percent from the first few days of early voting in 2006; in Harris County, where the first three days of early voting was more than 200 percent higher; and in Fort Bend County, where it was up 170 percent.

Andrade attributes the bigger numbers to a general rise in popularity of early voting. "Our registered voters are busy people. When you can stop at any early voting location or vote on weekends, it works," she says. But until all the ballots are cast, it will be hard to tell whether the increased early turnout portends higher turnout overall — or gives an edge of any kind for either party. State officials only provide the total number of ballots returned in these first few days but not the party affiliation of the folks who are casting ballots. “It begs the question — we really need to know the political makeup of the people voting early. It really just makes you want to know,“ says Mike Baselice, who has been polling for Gov. Rick Perry for more than a decade.

This year’s so-called enthusiasm gap — the difference in the level of excitement between Republican and Democratic voters — suggests the turnout boost may stem from the GOP's high motivation. Higher relative turnout in counties dominated by suburbs are also giving Republicans reason to feel good: Fort Bend County (6.7 percent) and neighboring Montgomery County (6.3 percent) lead the state's big counties in the percentage of registered voters who have cast a ballot so far.

"That is the suburban vote, which, for the last 20 years has been Republican at the gubernatorial level," says Reggie Bashur, a Republican consultant who informally advises Perry. "In 1994, when George W. Bush was elected governor, he won by over 320,000 votes, and those majorities came from the suburbs and the kinds of counties we're discussing here."

But Bashur and others caution that it’s too early to know how much better Republicans will fare this year without the precinct-level data and voters’ partisan history. Political consultants have already begun analyzing the more detailed data. Consultants who pay for access to voter rolls from the various counties can compare the list of those who have already cast ballots to their precinct locations and previous primary voting history to see which side’s faring well and adjust their get-out-the-vote efforts accordingly.

"It's too early to say whether this is good or bad," says Houston-based Democratic consultant Keir Murray. "There's a lot of Republican enthusiasm, but the question is whether that gets sustained over the entire process. The minority voting locations are up substantially also." Democrats who acknowledge a difficult electoral environment are aggressively using this early voting period to lure voters to the polls. “We’ll specifically see if those folks who voted for the first time in 2008 are coming back to the polls,” says Katherine Haenschen, who heads the Travis County Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign.

For all the campaigns, the practical effect of early voting’s increasing popularity is a shorter window to win people over. Because as many as half of voters could cast their votes before Election Day, campaigns need to have mobilized get-out-the-vote efforts by this week. “Most campaigns need to peak the first week of early voting and sustain that peak,” Baselice says. “It used to be you wanted to peak on Election Day. Now you have to bring all campaigns back two weeks, peak the first week of early voting and then hold it.”

In Travis County, rooms full of volunteer phone bankers are filling the coordinated campaign headquarters each night this week, hoping to motivate their voters by offering a deal: Get to the polls, and we’ll stop calling you.

“We want folks to get out and vote, so we don’t have to call them, knock on their door, send them a robocall, send them mail, put stuff on their doorstep," Haenschen says. "If you vote, you come off the list.” 

Day Three Early Voting: 2006 & 2010

County '06 Cumulative '06 EV % '10 Cumulative '10 EV % % Change
HARRIS 34,773 1.81% 107,782 5.56% 210%
DALLAS 35,511 2.96% 57,286 5.00% 61%
TARRANT 26,284 2.84% 41,377 4.42% 57%
BEXAR 29,920 3.33% 50,204 5.54% 68%
TRAVIS 19,216 3.39% 35,873 5.94% 87%
COLLIN 9,886 2.59% 18,666 4.40% 89%
EL PASO 8,907 2.37% 10,783 2.84% 21%
DENTON 7,785 2.34% 13,950 3.83% 79%
FORT BEND 7,640 1.74% 20,623 6.67% 170%
HIDALGO 4,883 2.85% 16,391 5.53% 236%
MONTGOMERY 6,429 2.83% 15,713 6.29% 144%
WILLIAMSON 6,651 3.19% 13,874 5.84% 109%
NUECES 8,937 4.52% 9,748 5.14% 9%
GALVESTON 7,810 4.12% 15,813 8.65% 102%
CAMERON 4,804 2.87% 6,994 4.02% 46%
Total 219,436 2.70% 435,077 5.22% 98%

Source: Texas Secretary of State

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