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October 26th, 2018:

Day 4 early voting: A brief look around the state

The Trib has it all organized for you.

As of day three of early voting, 1,344,741 Texans have cast in-person ballots and 240,601 cast mail-in ballots in the 30 counties where most registered voters in the state — 78 percent — live. That preliminary turnout equals 79 percent of the total votes cast in those counties during the entire two-week early voting period in the last midterm election in 2014. So far this year, 12.9 percent of the 12.3 million registered voters in those 30 counties have voted.

Each day, as more data comes in, the graphs below will be updated to show cumulative in-person and mail-in ballot turnout in these counties. The data is preliminary. Texas is widely expected to surpass its 2014 voter turnout, and more than half of all those who do vote are expected to cast their ballots early. Some have speculated turnout this year could approach that of the past two presidential elections. Early voting for the 2018 midterms in Texas started Oct. 22 and runs through Nov. 2.

There’s graphs and charts to show you not just where we are now, but also where we were at the same time in 2016, 2014, and 2012. Suffice it to say we’re blowing 2014 out of the water – counties like Dallas, El Paso, and Travis are not just beyond their 2014 numbers, they’re up by two to three times as much as in 2014. That’s quite encouraging. Of course, turnout is up everywhere, including in heavily Republican counties. We’ll need to see some analysis of who has voted to start to make inferences. The person who has become the go-to for this sort of thing is Republican consultant Derek Ryan, who posts daily breakdowns on Twitter; I referred to his data a couple of times during the primary. You can see that (for example) more people with a Republican primary history have voted in Harris County so far than people with a Democratic primary history, but about a third of the electorate has no primary history, with a chunk of them having no previous voting history at all. Keep an eye on that as we go forward.

Anyway. Here are the totals for Thursday, and here are the daily totals from 2010, from 2014, and from 2016, as well as a spreadsheet with totals from 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. The running tallies:


Year    Mail    Early    Total
==============================
2010  28,932  104,420  133,352
2014  52,338   80,103  132,441
2018  59,732  249,383  309,115

2008  37,381  170,629  208,010
2012  50,790  201,962  252,752
2016  73,043  293,440  366,483

Thursday was down a bit for in person voting, though it was up for mail ballots; my guess is that the ones that were put in the mail on Monday arrived yesterday. For what it’s worth, Thursday was the weakest day for in person early voting in both 2010 and 2014, though that was not the case in the Presidential years. Don’t know what to make of that, but if that pattern persists we’ll see an uptick today. As I said yesterday, barring anything weird we will either pass or come very close to the final EV total from 2014 after today’s voting.

Eventually we’ll settle the debate about straight ticket voting and judicial races

But for now we have one last chance to provide a baseline for comparison.

As Harris County goes, so go its judicial races.

In three of the last five elections, a single party has swept every Harris judicial contest, with two going to Republicans and one to Democrats, according to Rice University political scientist Mark Jones’ analysis. In 2008, one of the two non-sweeps, Democrats won 85 percent of Harris County’s judicial contests.

During most wave years in Harris County, courthouse races go to the party whose candidate wins the top-of-the-ticket contest — the presidency or U.S. Senate — within the county.

The trend could end after 2018, the last year Texas will allow voters to cast their ballots for every candidate from one party by checking a single box. Lawmakers nixed straight-ticket voting through a bill signed last year by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The end of the straight-ticket option makes 2018 critical for judicial candidates, who, if they win, will have four or six years to raise money and gain name identification before facing re-election. By then, their fates will rest less on their party’s top-of-the-ticket performance and more on their own ability to draw support.

With some predicting a wave year for Democrats — or at least a favorable electoral environment — the party has a rare chance to avoid an electoral massacre during a midterm cycle.

“Democrats want to use this as an opportunity to pick up seats and build a bench,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist. “The opportunity here is massive.”

It is almost certainly the case that there will be fewer votes cast in judicial elections once the straight party ticket option is eliminated. How much it is reduced, and whether the reduction is uniform or if it varies by ballot type (absentee versus in person), early versus election day, geography, race, ethnicity, age, party, etc etc etc, are all questions we will get to explore in the coming years. I will say that some judicial candidates now are much more active and visible than others, but it’s far from clear to me that there’s any connection between an individual judicial candidate’s level of campaign activity and performance at the polls. From my very anecdotal perspective, I don’t see such a connection, but I make no claim to validity for that observation. I do hope someone more qualified than I will take a stab at quantifying that and other questions in 2020 and beyond.

A step forward in Waller County

Some progress.

Two days after students at Prairie View A&M University sued Waller County over allegations that the county is suppressing the voting rights of black residents, the rural county said it is expanding early voting opportunities for students at the historically black university.

The county will now open a Sunday polling place at Prairie View City Hall and expand voting hours at the university’s campus center on Monday through Wednesday of next week to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., instead of the original 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., according to the NAACP. Students can continue to early vote at the Waller County Community Center in Prairie View on Thursday and Friday of next week.

According to Waller County’s website, there is still no location on campus or in the city of Prairie View available to the students during the first week of early voting, which is what originally prompted five students to sue the county, accusing it of violating the federal Voting Rights Act and U.S. Constitution by denying them “an equal opportunity to vote” compared to the county’s non-black voters.

[…]

In a statement released Thursday, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called the expanded early voting plan “an improvement over the original plan, but still not equal to what other Waller County residents were offered.”

See here for the background. This is better than it was before, and that’s always something. But seriously, why is this so hard? Why isn’t Prairie View being treated like other voting locations? There’s no acceptable answer to that question.

UPDATE: State Sen. Borris Miles is not impressed with the latest announcement.

The Fort Bend DA race

There’s been a lot of focus on how Harris County will vote this year after Hillary Clinton’s wide margin of victory in 2016 – I’ve certainly contributed to that – but it’s important to remember that Clinton carried Fort Bend County as well, and there are some big elections happening there, too.

Brian Middleton

Cliff Vacek knows Fort Bend County like the back of his hand. The former state district judge, now 71, has lived his whole life in the fast-growing, diverse suburb southwest of Houston, where he’s also served as a teacher and had his own law practice.

“The criminal justice system ought to be fair,” said Vacek, a Republican. “I hope people feel like I do, that they want the prosecution to be swift, they want it to be vigorous, but they want it to be fair. That’s what I offer.”

Brian Middleton once worked as a prosecutor for longtime District Attorney John Healey, but the Houston native now wears many hats — running his own law firm in southwest Houston in addition to working as a municipal prosecutor for the cities of Meadows Place, Jersey Village and Wallis and as a judge for the city of Jacinto.

If elected, Middleton would become the first African-American district attorney for the county of more than 765,000 residents, which is 35 percent white, 21 percent black, 24 percent Hispanic, and 21 percent Asian and other.

“I think it would send a signal to the rest of the world that we in Fort Bend County have very strong values and value diversity,” said Middleton, 46, a Democrat. “People of color can succeed.”

Whoever wins, it will represent a major change in Fort Bend County, where Healey, a Republican, has presided over the district attorney’s office since 1992, the year Bill Clinton was elected president. The race is being closely watched as the county backed Hillary Clinton for president in 2016 but has continued to elect Republicans to top county offices.

Other key races include county judge, where Republican incumbent Robert Hebert is trying to stave off a challenge from Fort Bend ISD board member KP George. At the federal level, meanwhile, Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni is trying to unseat U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, a Republican who has represented the 22nd Congressional District since 2009.

I think psychologically, the state GOP is prepared for the possibility that they’ll lose Harris County. They don’t want to, of course, and they’ll do what they can to win as many races as they can, but they saw the numbers, and not just the ones from 2016. Losing Fort Bend, even one countywide race, would be a much bigger blow. The Republican takeover of the state began in earnest in the suburbs, which grew rapidly in population and voting strength, and spread from there. Democrats have mostly taken over the big urban counties, but an incursion into this kind of turf is as whole ‘nother thing. It changes the narrative of where Republicans and Democrats are, if nothing else, and it would definitely be a major consideration in 2021 when maps need to be redrawn. I don’t know how Middleton or George are going to do – in some ways, winning these county offices is harder than winning legislative races – but they have the potential to really shake things up if they win. Keep an eye on this.