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Reading the Tea Leaves on Early Voting Numbers

With the early voting period for the upcoming midterm elections almost halfway done, the urge to read sustainable trends in the numbers collected so far is almost irresistible.

Vote signs outside of early voting locations in Austin on Feb. 23, 2014.

With the early voting period for the upcoming midterm elections almost halfway done, the urge to read sustainable trends in the numbers collected so far is almost irresistible.

The latest figures from the Secretary of State's Office, which collects numbers over the first three days of early voting, point to a significant increase in turnout over the 2010 midterm elections in the state's 15 most populous counties. More than 485,000 early votes were cast through Wednesday. That's 50,000 more than had been cast after the first three days of early voting in 2010.

Finding a single, consistent trend behind this increase, though, defies easy analysis. For one thing, big jumps in early voting occur in some counties but skip others entirely. Big increases were seen in GOP redoubts such as Denton and Collin counties. A significant increase was also registered in Democratic stronghold Hidalgo County.

Among the very biggest counties, a strong increase in early voting is being seen in Tarrant County — home to a vigorous Tea Party movement as well as a strongly contested state Senate contest to choose a successor to Wendy Davis. After three days, more than 59,000 early votes had been cast, up 18,000 — or 44 percent — over four years ago.

In Bexar County, voters have the eastern end of the state's only competitive congressional race, between Pete Gallego and Will Hurd, and an increasingly nasty district attorney's race in which a single donor has given close to $700,000 to the challenger. Early voting there is up more than 10 percent, to about 56,500.

Turnout has been largely static, though, in Harris, Dallas and Travis counties.

Reading more into these numbers, for now, depends on whom you ask.

The Democratic turnout organization Battleground Texas interprets the increase in turnout as a result, to a certain extent, of its voter registration efforts. Spokeswoman Erica Sackin said her group has more than 8,600 deputy registrars working across the state to get voters on the rolls. And, she noted, volunteer activity is high in some traditionally Republican counties, such as Collin and Fort Bend.

Republican political consultant Craig Murphy of Murphy Nasica points to analysis done by his firm that shows these early voters so far tend to skew Republican. In Harris County, for instance, Democrats have made a big push this cycle to get more mail-in ballots in the hands of their voters. Murphy said his numbers show the two parties are at rough parity on mail-in ballots. But Republican-leaning voters have been showing up far more frequently to vote in person.

He sees similar trends in Dallas and Tarrant counties.

In Tarrant County, more than half the early votes cast countywide have been registered in Davis' SD-10. Nearly half the voters who have cast ballots in SD-10 have a history of voting in Republican primaries, according to Murphy's analysis. He said he sees similar trends of GOP-affiliated voters showing up in strength in several battleground House contests in neighboring Dallas County.

The big question, of course, is whether these trends will hold. While it's convenient to compare numbers from this year to 2010, there are limitations to the conclusions that can be drawn.

Also, GOP and Democratic voters tend to exhibit different behaviors during early voting. Republican voters traditionally show up earlier. Will Democrats again show up en masse during the second week and thus mitigate the GOP advantage showing up in Murphy's analysis?

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