Extensive voter outreach programs in Harris County may have contributed to the historic voter turnout in the Lake Houston area for the Nov. 3 election, experts said.
Voter turnout in the 2020 election was the highest ever, and local turnout mirrored a greater trend statewide as well as in Harris and Montgomery counties as more voters cast their ballots during early voting than all of the 2016 election.
In the Lake Houston area, more than 110,000 voters voted early in Harris County—almost 42% more voters than the entire 2016 presidential election, according to the County Clerk’s office.
County officials and political experts point to the presidential race and voter outreach programs launched in Harris County as contributors to turnout.
“We have an unprecedented amount of access to the polls,” said Roxanne Werner, the director of community relations for the clerk’s office. “We have 120 locations, so that’s triple the amount that we had in 2016.”
However, these initiatives have faced challenges, and not all of them survived to Election Day. The Texas Republican Party filed a lawsuit against the clerk’s office to prevent drive-thru voting, a challenge that lasted up to the day before Election Day.
How the turnout turned out Republican and Democratic experts pointed to frustration toward the ongoing pandemic as one of driving forces behind the record-breaking turnout in the Lake Houston area.
Francisco “Quico” Canseco, a former Republican U.S. representative from Texas and the director of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Election Protection Project, said he believes the pandemic affected turnout.
“It has brought out a lot of people and made them realize that, ‘If I can stand in line at a grocery store, with a mask and gloves and staying 6 feet apart, I can certainly go and vote,’” he said.
Alán M. De León, Houston advocacy organizer for the statewide nonpartisan nonprofit MOVE Texas, said he believes the converging public health, economic and environmental crises as well as the county’s new voting infrastructure affected turnout.
“The county, in 2016, invested $4 million to facilitate that election,” De León said. “This year, it’s close to $30 million.”
In August, former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins told commissioners he would spend $27 million of election funding to create voting infrastructure for the Nov. 3 election, such as recruiting poll workers and launching 24-hour and drive-thru voting centers.
The drive-thru locations—which Hollins said were first launched in the July runoff to keep voters safe amid the virus—consistently saw higher numbers than their in-person counterparts in the general election, per early-voting data from the clerk’s office. The Humble Civic Center site, for example, had 17,649 ballots cast in person and 19,161 through drive-thru, per unofficial results.
The Texas Republican Party filed a last-minute lawsuit to stop drive-thru voting Oct. 12. While the case was dismissed on several court levels, Texas Republicans continued to seek appeals, leading to Hollins closing all but one drive-thru site Nov. 2 to prevent any votes from being declared invalid.
De León said although Texas Republicans argued in court the programs exposed the election to a risk of voter fraud, there is no evidence drive-thru voting caused fraud.
“We’re going to continue to advocate for options like drive-thru voting and widely available ballot drop-off sites,” he said. “[These] are safe ways for people to get involved in our elections without the risk of voter fraud.”
Montgomery County also changed some voting infrastructure. Montgomery County Commissioners Court approved adding two new early-voting sites in response to high turnout, including one at the East Montgomery County Courthouse in New Caney. At the Oct. 19 court meeting, Precinct 4 Commissioner James Metts thanked his fellow commissioners for helping increase voting locations.
“In Precinct 4, we are seeing large numbers as they are everywhere, and we certainly appreciate your efforts and the timely manner in getting that up to speed,” Metts said.
More than 1.66 million ballots were cast in Harris County and 272,805 in Montgomery County during the general election, according to election data from the counties. Within the seven Lake Houston-area ZIP codes, 112,424 voters cast their ballots during early voting alone.
Among the ZIP codes, voters had access to 12 more polling sites than in the 2016 election. Additionally, four of 56 local voter precincts saw turnout increase by 10%, and eight saw more than a 20% increase.
Most partisan races in the Lake Houston area did not flip, including the race for U.S. House District 2, held by Republican Dan Crenshaw. Final canvassed results showed Crenshaw won his re-election bid with 55.61% of the votes.
“There was definitely a Republican wave that benefited down-ballot Republicans, and it showed that locally the Republican brand was still strong despite some dissatisfaction with Donald Trump,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor.
However, other nonpartisan races ended up more competitive. The Humble City Council Position 4 race resulted in a runoff scheduled for Dec. 12 between Arliss Bentley and Paula Settle. Canvassed results show turnout for this race was 60.44%, or 4,685 ballots total.
Humble City Secretary Jenny Page said this marks a stark difference from the 2019 Humble mayoral race, when only 562 ballots were cast—about 7.35% of the registered electorate.
Additionally, the last City Council election in May 2018 was canceled due to all incumbents running unopposed. Page said this is the first runoff the city has seen since 1985.
“I personally felt Harris County did a great job of coordinating and administering this election,” Page said in an email. “There were the usual small issues but from our perspective, voting went very smoothly at the Humble Civic Center.”
Matt Dulin contributed to this report.