Harris County Election officials are planning on almost twice as much voter turnout in Houston’s upcoming general election compared to the previous election cycle, said Michael Winn, Harris County Administrator of Elections.
The mayor, city controller and all 16 city council seats are up for election as well as the HISD board of trustees, several proposed state constitutional amendments and a $3.5 billion bond measure from the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County.
The last such election, in 2015, recorded 20% voter turnout, but election officials are anticipating 35% to 38% turnout this year, Winn said.
“We know turnout is going to be higher because this is going to be a highly contested mayoral race,” he said.
In the past five mayoral-year elections, voter turnout fell as low as 9 percent and did not surpass 21 percent, Harris County election records show.
Now upheaval at the national level has changed local political dynamics too, said Bob Stein, Rice University urban politics researcher.
“You can definitely expect to see that trickle down,” Stein said.
New challenges and challengers
Term limits for the mayor, city council and city controller were redefined in 2015 from three, two-year terms to two, four-year terms.
As a result, this is the first time Houston candidates have had to wait four years to run for office. Having less frequent opportunities may have prompted this year’s large, 125-plus candidate pool, Stein said.
“Candidates used to wait until a seat opened up, but with four-year terms, people don’t want to wait,” he said.
The longer terms might also be driving more contested races for incumbents who now have to defend a longer voting record and uphold their name recognition.
“In four-year terms, people forget you. The best advertising you can get is people going into the polling booth and seeing the same name every two years,” Stein said.
To predict voter turnout and plan accordingly, election officials begin analyzing information about previous voter turnout and competition between candidates about 90 days before Election Day, Winn said.
Roughly 5 to 10% of the anticipated boost in turnout might come from an easier voting process, Winn said. This is the first municipal election that voters can vote at any polling location in the county rather than a specific precinct.
Harris County plans to open 30 more polling locations than the previous municipal election, for a total of 757 Election Day locations. Voters can also begin casting ballots early at one of 52 early voting locations. Voting hours are also extended to begin at 7 a.m. and end at 7 p.m. on Election Day and vary by location during early voting.
Individual polling locations will not see a greater number of election administrators, however the county is training them in new procedures aimed at increasing efficiency and preventing long wait times, Winn said.
Voters can find polling locations and live-updated wait times at www.harrisvotes.com.
Editor’s note: this post was updated for clarity.