The political landscape of Harris County government was transformed Nov. 6 when Democrats won control of Commissioners Court and other key county positions, including dozens of judicial posts.
In unincorporated parts of Harris County, such as Spring and Klein, where there is no local municipal government, the county is the primary local body of government.
The Democratic victories coincided with the highest overall voter turnout ever for a midterm in Harris County. It was also the last major Texas election in which straight-ticket voting was an option, allowing voters to push one button to select all candidates from one party. During the 85th legislative session lawmakers passed a bill ending the practice beginning in 2020.
Locally groups and individuals that study voting trends said high-profile races such as the state’s U.S. Senate race, which set Democrat Beto O’Rourke against incumbent Republican Ted Cruz, helped push people to the polls in Harris County.
“Now everything seems to be tinged by national events, and perhaps that’s why we had such a high turnout,” said Linda Cohn, president of the Houston-area chapter of the League of Women Voters.
At the local level, voters unseated incumbent Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, and Democrats won control of most county and court positions up for election.
“We haven’t had a partisan change of control on [Commissioners Court] since the early ’80s, so this is a big swing,” said Richard Murray, a political science professor and director of the Survey Research Institute at the University of Houston. “It probably means Democrats are going to run the Commissioners Court for quite a long time.”
One of the changes brought about on election night Nov. 6 was the defeat of Emmett, who has served as Harris County judge since 2007, by the Democratic challenger Lina Hidalgo, who was attending graduate school at the time she decided to run for office. In his last election in 2014, Emmett won with 83.4 percent of the vote against his Democratic opponent.
Emmett attributed his loss by about 19,000 votes to straight-ticket voting.
“Seventy-seven percent of the people voted straight ticket, and the margin of Democrats over Republicans is 105,000. … There aren’t enough non-straight-ticket voters out there to make up the difference,” Emmett said after the Nov. 13 Commissioners Court meeting.
Hidalgo said while straight-ticket voting played a role in her victory, her campaign and the Harris County Democratic Party worked to get people to come out to the polls for candidates in positions such as the one she sought.
“For our part we spent our campaign resources running television ads that asked not only for support for our campaign but about Democratic values and the importance of voting for the entire ticket,” Hidalgo said. “Voters told me the ads gave them confidence in supporting a slate of candidates that would work hard for them and protect their values.”
Hidalgo said her priorities will include overhauling the criminal justice system, improving transparency and continuing efforts to curb flooding.
As for initiatives the current administration began, such as projects that are part of the $2.5 billion Harris County Flood Control District bond approved in August, Hidalgo said she will work with colleagues to determine whether any changes are necessary.
“Every time you take over an organization you do a complete review of the operations and finances,” Hidalgo said. “I’m interested in making the best decisions for the residents of Harris County.”
The county clerk, treasurer and Precinct 2 commissioner positions also flipped from Republican to Democrat. In the race for Precinct 2 commissioner, incumbent Republican Jack Morman lost to challenger Adrian Garcia, a former Harris County sheriff.
Harris County turnout
Voter turnout in Harris County for the midterm election was the highest ever recorded for a nonpresidential election year, according to data from the Texas Secretary of State’s office.
A total of 52.9 percent of registered county voters, or about 1.2 million voters, participated compared to 32.9 percent in 2014’s midterm. Turnout across Texas was 52.8 percent of those registered.
Age and economic factors can influence voter turnout, said Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist.
“The three factors most associated with voter turnout are your age, income and education,” Jones said.
In Spring and Klein, 30 out of 39 voter precincts had a higher percentage of voter turnout than the state average. Among those with a low turnout, five are located in the 77090 ZIP code, which has the lowest median age and income in the Spring and Klein area.
Latino voters are also an important demographic in Harris County, said Renee Cross, senior director of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs.
“There is an early indication by the county clerk’s office that the percentage of Latino voters in 2018 was significantly higher [than previous years],” Cross said. “If … Latinos continue to lean increasingly more Democratic, it is going to become harder for Republicans to win in countywide races.”
Spokespeople for the Harris County Republican and Democratic parties said they expect the end of straight-ticket voting could create new challenges in the 2020 election.
“Voters will have to be much more engaged and much more aware of who the candidates are,” said Vlad Davidiuk, Harris County Republican Party communications director.
However, Odus Evbagharu, Harris County Democratic Party communications director, said increased voter accessibility could help Democrats in 2020 in place of the straight-ticket option.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to make some changes to voting times, the machines, having more voting centers, maybe not having to vote just in your precinct,” Evbagharu said.
Effect on policy, courts
While the general turnout among Harris County voters favored Democrats, individual commissioner precincts did not all break down along party lines. Republican Jack Cagle retained his seat as commissioner in Precinct 4, which includes Spring and Klein, against Democrat Penny Shaw by a margin of about 8 percent.
Cagle said he feels some of the challengers running in county races were running on national issues that do not come into play in the daily role of the commissioners, whose responsibilities include maintaining county roads and bridges as well as adopting the county tax rate.
“I know … folks that were running were trying to portray it as a national policymaker role … to the extent that some of the new members may want to focus on that in their role in terms of a bully pulpit,” Cagle said. “That’s fine as long as we do not neglect our job.”
Although Commissioners Court does not have the power to pass ordinances, it has limited regulatory power that can affect unincorporated areas. For example commissioners in October prohibited certain types of sexually oriented businesses, according to the Harris County Attorney’s office.
“Usually if a party controls the process they redraw the lines to benefit themselves,” Murray said.
Democrats may now work to improve voter accessibility, Murray said.
A similar shift in criminal courts at law could also change the way the county handles issues such as bail bonds, which is the subject of a lawsuit the county has been fighting since 2016.
The suit alleges the county unfairly jails those charged with misdemeanors who cannot afford bail. A federal district judge ordered the county to remedy the situation, but the suit has been held up in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
All of the Republican criminal court at law judges named in the suit were replaced by Democratic candidates in November.
“We’ll see a big move toward particularly being more careful about keeping people locked up that can’t make bond, and we’ll settle this lawsuit that has been rumbling on for two or three years,” Murray said.