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Volatile Republican Presidential Race Fueled Record Primary Turnout

Voting turnout in Texas surged on Tuesday with the highest number of Republican voters making it to the polls for the party's primary in more than a decade, thanks largely to a volatile presidential party contest.

People stand in line to vote in the primaries at the Flawn Academic Center on the University of Texas campus on March 1, 2016.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Voting turnout in Texas surged on Tuesday with a record high number of Republican voters making it to the polls for the party's primary, thanks to a volatile presidential party contest and the state's earlier position in the nation's primaries.

"It's unprecedented," said Tom Mechler, Texas GOP chairman. "It's definitely historical."  

Melcher attributed the record-breaking turnout to Texas' place on the primary schedule plus the fact that this was only the second time in Texas history that there was a GOP primary in all 254 counties. 

"The reason that this has happened is that Texans believe they are going to have a say," he said.  

More than 2.8 million Republican ballots were cast in Texas, approximately double the 2012 Republican primary total of 1.4 million. In the Democratic primary, more than 1.4 million were cast, besting the 2012 totals but falling far short of the nearly 2.9 million Democratic ballots cast in the 2008 primary, when the contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton drew strong interest.

The combined turnout for both primaries this year is comparable to the 4.2 million primary ballots cast in 2008, according to unofficial totals.


Across the state, voters remained in lines hours after the polls officially closed at 7 p.m. 

Harris County, the state's largest county, reported voters still waiting in line after 9:30 p.m., prompting more complaints and problems than usual from the field to the county clerk's office, said Hector DeLeon, a spokesman for the office. 

"This election is different by the number of calls," he said "We're seeing something happen out there." 

Dallas County saw its early vote totals double for both Democrats and Republicans. Heading into election day, 53,796 Democratic votes, and 59,050 GOP votes had been cast compared to about half that number for both parties in 2012. On Tuesday, the strong interest continued. Election day voter turnout was so high that the county had to replenish GOP ballots in some precincts because they ran out early, according to Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippins Poole. (Dallas is one of several counties that offer voters a choice of using paper or electronic voting systems.)

"I think the interest is in the presidential race," Poole said. "We're at unprecedented numbers for a primary."

That trend continued throughout the state, where voting turnout was way up over the number of votes cast in the 2012 primary. In some places it was nearing the record numbers set during the 2008 election when Obama Barack's candidacy drew more interest than usual. 

"We're way ahead of 2012," said Jacque Callanen, Bexar County's Election Administrator, who expected a combined total of early voting and Tuesday ballots to top 200,000. That would fall short of the 2008 primary, turnout which was 275,000 but best the 2012 primary election numbers.

In previous years, more states had held their primaries before Texas. But this year, the Texas primary was earlier in the overall primary schedule.

Also helping boost Republican turnout was holding primaries in every county in the state. A Republican or Democratic primary can only be held in a county if there is a party chairman in that county. In years past, that's been tough, said Mike Joyce, spokesman for the Texas Republican Party.  

"In the bigger counties it's obvious," Joyce said. "But in some of these very small West Texas counties you only have a couple of hundred of people." 

In Fort Bend County, early voting, while strong, was slow to pick up over the two-week period, particularly in the Republic primary, according to Election Administration John Oldham.

"We typically have more early voters than election day voters," Oldham said

But this year, more Fort Bend voters shifted to election day, beating the early voting turnout. Voters were waiting to see what Republican presidential candidates would drop out after last month's South Carolina primary.

"We expected a big turnout, but we didn't expect this big a turnout," Oldham said.


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