Analysis: Election Day in Texas isn’t even the half of it

Whether the 2018 election attracts more of the state's voters or not, more than half of the people who do vote will vote early — before Election Day dawns.

Voters lined up at the Austin Community College Highland Campus in Austin for the first day of early voting on Oct. 24, 2016.
Voters lined up at the Austin Community College Highland Campus in Austin for the first day of early voting on Oct. 24, 2016.  Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

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If money voted — heck, if yard signs voted — Beto O’Rourke would be well on his way to the United States Senate.

But only voters vote. Starting Monday, Texans will get a look behind the curtains that tells them whether the blizzards of cash and the swarm of yard signs represent real electoral activity.

Early voting will tell some of that story. In Texas, more people vote early than on Election Day. Sometimes, it’s far more people; in 2016, for instance, 73.5 percent of the total votes cast were cast before Election Day. In 2012, the presidential election year before that, 63 percent of the voters cast their ballots before Election Day rolled around.

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Here’s another way to put it: Texas elections last for a couple of weeks, and Election Day is just our name for the last round.

The Texas Secretary of State says the state now has 15.6 million registered voters. In the last four midterm elections, between 33.6 percent and 38 percent of registered voters actually showed up. If this year’s turnout is within those bounds, that would mean 5.2 million to 5.9 million Texans will vote.

That would break the 5-million-vote mark for the first time, but it would still mean that 9.7 million to 10.4 million registered voters in the state of Texas — slightly less than two-thirds of them — signed up to vote without actually getting themselves to the polls.

Fewer people vote in midterm elections than in presidential elections, and even the percentage of early voters drops significantly in midterms. But casting a ballot early is still more popular than traditional Election Day voting. In the last midterm election in Texas in 2014, Republican Greg Abbott, then the attorney general, faced Democrat Wendy Davis, then a state senator, in an open race for governor. The early vote was 54.1 percent — a smaller portion than in presidential years but still more than half of overall turnout.

The same was true in 2010, when a governor’s race between Republican Gov. Rick Perry and Democrat Bill White, a former Houston mayor, topped the ballot: Early turnout accounted for 53.1 percent of the vote.

If the turnout numbers this year are in line with past midterm elections, the state will see about 3 million voters, give or take, between the start of early voting on Monday and Nov. 2, when it ends.

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If the astonishing fundraising in this election — by Republican incumbents, on one hand, and Democratic challengers, especially in federal races, on the other — is a portent of voter enthusiasm, then turnout should be higher than normal. If your neighborhood has been swept up in the flocks of yard signs, especially the black-and-white ones for what’s his name, then you might be looking for higher-than-normal local turnout, too.

It’s where hype meets history. This has been an extraordinary run-up to the elections. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, expected to be a shoe-in at the first of the season, has been leading in the polls, but only by single digits. U.S. Rep. O’Rourke, who has bootstrapped what first looked like a fanciful political travelogue into a juggernaut that broke national fundraising records with a $38 million third quarter, is giving him a run for his money.

It’s been one of the year’s top political stories, in Texas and nationally. But the question underlying it has remained the same: Is it possible for a Democrat to beat a Republican in Texas? The candidates have provided their theories and if you mash those together, they think a larger-than-normal Democratic turnout and a complacent Republican electorate could close the gap between the majority and minority parties.

They’ll begin getting their answers when Texas voters line up, starting next week. And they’ll have a reasonably good idea before most of us wake up on Election Day whether Texas is still as Republican as its recent history would suggest.