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Early voting turnout surges in Collin County, but nobody's sure why

Population growth is nothing new in suburbs north of Dallas, but not even that explains why so many people in affluent and rural Collin County are turning out in droves this year.

Campaign signs lined the edge of the Farmersville City Hall property on the first day of early voting on Oct. 24, 2016.

DALLAS — After shattering the state’s voter registration records this year, Texans last week went on to set new bars for early voting turnout. And nowhere, so far, do people seem to be more fired up about Tuesday’s election than in Collin County.

More than 52.9 percent of registered Collin voters cast ballots during early voting, making it the only county among the state’s 10 largest to exceed the halfway mark in turnout before Election Day. Obviously something has fired up North Texans in this county’s affluent suburbs and rural enclaves.

Are voters in the Republican county passionately protecting their party's long-running stronghold? Or are Democrats finally making visible inroads? Neither party really knows. 

“I’ll be curious to see what the results are, honestly,” said Neal Katz, executive director of the Collin County Republican Party.

Collin County suburbs like Frisco and McKinney are routinely among the state's fastest-growing cities, but population growth doesn't fully account for the increased turnout this year. The county's voting-age population grew 19.5 percent from 2012 to 2016, but the number of people voting early outpaced that and increased 35.6 percent.

And it’s unclear what role, if any, demographic changes are playing in the increased early voting turnout. Political experts (and Democrats) say that Trump's controversial comments about Mexicans at the start of his campaign, his rhetoric about immigrants and his vow to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is fueling increased voter registration among Hispanics who intend to vote against him.

The number of new voting-age Hispanics in Collin outpaced the increase in new voting-age whites, but their share of the overall voting-age population only went from 13.9 percent in 2012 to 15.9 percent in 2016, according to population projections by the state demographer. The share of voting-age whites decreased during the same period, but only slightly, from 64 percent to 59.9 percent.

Some of the decrease in the share of white residents is due to an increase in Asian residents. But the demographer's projections don't break out the Asian voting-age population.

Texas is expected to remain in the GOP column this cycle, even though Hillary Clinton is polling closer to Donald Trump in Texas than Democrats usually get to Republicans in the state. That relatively tighter race has prompted speculation that the GOP nominee’s controversial comments about women and minorities could prompt some traditionally Republican legislative districts and counties to turn more purple even if they don’t swap political hands.

But turning Collin would be a stunning feat. No Democrat holds a countywide office or a state legislative seat based in the county. Since 2004, the closest a top-of-the-ticket Democrat got to winning the county was when President Obama garnered 36.6 percent of the vote in his historic 2008 campaign.

Collin County Democratic Party chairman Mike Rawlins said that “for the first time anybody can remember,” the party is challenging Republican incumbents in all five Texas House races in the county. They’re running cable TV ads and putting out more yard signs.

“Whether or not that’s had a big impact on turnout, your speculation is as good as mine,” Rawlins said.

Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson said Republicans shouldn’t fear that Democrats are about to take out one of that many suburban firewalls that surround urban counties and allow the GOP to hold power at the state level.

“But they could lose a chink out of the wall,” he said.

Jillson said even if there were a Democratic surge at play in Collin County, that alone wouldn’t spur the kind of turnout spike the county is experiencing.

“It’s gotta be a mobilization on both sides,” he said.

Annie Daniel and Ryan Murphy contributed to this story. 

Read more elections coverage:

  • Top-of-the-ballot races have been decided in Harris County by thin margins in recent years, and flipped between parties. But Democrats see the demographics trending their way
  • The U.S. Department of Justice announced Monday it would be placing election monitors in Harris, Dallas and Waller counties for the general election.

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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