The Nov. 6 midterm election marked record-breaking voter turnout for both Harris and Montgomery counties. For the first time ever more than 1 million people in Harris County and more than 190,000 people in Montgomery County participated in a nonpresidential election, according to election data from the two counties.
The trend was seen across the state with 53 percent of voters statewide participating in this midterm election, an increase from just less than 34 percent of voters statewide casting ballots in the 2014 midterm election, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.
Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said he credits the historic voter turnout numbers to President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Texas’ midterm election. He said having a competitive statewide race is crucial to increasing voter turnout.
“[Trump] served as a lightning rod for Democrats to mobilize voters across the state to cast a vote against President Trump. But what Beto does is give them a reason to turn out in a positive manner,” Jones said. “[Beto] provided something we haven’t had in Texas since probably 2002—a race where the outcome at the statewide level was not a foregone conclusion before Election Day.”
While Democrats gained a slightly higher percent of straight-ticket voters compared to 2014, Republican candidates still dominated local races in Montgomery County, keeping their seats in roles such as county judge, commissioners and state representatives. Overall the percentage of eligible voters that showed up at the polls countywide in November was 57.3 percent, up from 37.7 percent in the last 2014 midterm.
“This [election] was different,” said Steve Leakey, president of the Voter Awareness Council in Montgomery County and former village association president of Alden Bridge. “The turnout was nearly 60 percent, which for a midterm [election] is significantly higher, and there are multiple factors. Number one, the president is a factor. Trump has stimulated interest, stimulated happiness, stimulated hate, stimulated all the above.”
In Harris and Montgomery counties, about 76 percent and 66 percent, respectively, of voters cast straight-party ballots.
Leakey said he believes straight-party voting—the selection of all candidates in one political party—is among the reasons Montgomery County leans heavily Republican. About 52.5 percent of all ballots cast were straight-party Republican, while 14.1 percent of all ballots cast were straight-party Democrat, according to the Montgomery County Elections Office.
In 2014 several local races, including county judge, state representative for District 15 and county commissioner, were unopposed in the November elections and were won by Republican candidates.
All of those races in 2016 had Democratic opponents, but Republican candidates still won every race in Montgomery County, with more than 65 percent of the vote. Republican candidates such as County Judge-elect Mark Keough, Montgomery County Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley and District 15 State Representative-elect Steve Toth will take office in January.
“From a party point of view, I’m not sure it’s a good thing for the [Republican] party’s self-interest of winning,” Leakey said. “Montgomery County is a historically Republican county—you can see that from this election—so without the straight-ticket option [in 2020], it’ll be interesting to see the impact.”
Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 25 into law in the 85th Texas Legislature, eliminating straight-party voting beginning in 2020, said Amy Lecocq, vice president of the Voter Awareness Council. She said she believes one of the reasons for the removal of straight-party voting is to encourage voters to consider individual candidates rather than political party affiliation.
Leakey said many straight-party voters do not look at their ballots before voting, so they do not vote in nonpartisan races—such as this year’s Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District board of directors race or school board races—and therefore do not finish the ballot, a practice known as undervoting.
“That was part of the motivation behind the Legislature—to reduce that amount of undervoting, but there will be a price to pay for that,” Leakey said. “It’ll take longer to vote, and there are still people that will say, ‘well, I don’t know about this one, so I’m not going to vote.’ It’ll be interesting to see what impact it has.”
In November, 39 percent and 51 percent of ballots cast within The Woodlands Township saw the township board of directors elections left incomplete, respectively, in Harris and Montgomery counties. The number of undervotes in races in The Woodlands totaled nearly half of all ballots submitted by eligible voters in The Woodlands, according to election results.
“Undervoting is just as significant of an issue as low voter turnout,” Leakey said. “Voter turnout is important, but then when you vote, vote a complete ballot.”
Age, income effects
While turnout for this election increased, Texas is not known for its civic engagement—especially with young voters, according to the 2018 Texas Civic Health Index, a report released by The University of Texas at Austin.
In the report, Texas ranked 47th in voter turnout for the 2016 presidential election, with only 48 percent of citizens ages 18-24 having registered to vote. In the same election, 74 percent of citizens ages 55-64 and 78 percent of citizens ages 65 and older had registered to vote. Across the state, 52.7 percent of registered voters cast ballots this year, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office.
Despite the record-breaking numbers this November, voter turnout totaled just 52.9 percent and 57.3 percent of registered voters in Harris and Montgomery counties, respectively, according to county election data.
Jay Jennings, a postdoctoral research fellow at The University of Texas at Austin, said factors contributing to Texas’ low participation in politics and low participation in the community include the rate of new people moving both in and around the state and Texas’ rank as one of the four youngest states in the country.
According to 2017 census data, the median age for Texas citizens is age 34. The median age in The Woodlands is 39, according to 2016 census data. In The Woodlands area, turnout was generally higher than the county averages—20 out of 36 total precincts had more than 60 percent of registered voters participate.
“Recognizing that people are young and transient in Texas and that we rank high in that is going to give some degree as to why it’s a challenge for Texas to be more civically involved,” Jennings said.
He said voting equates to representation in government, so if young people are not voting, they will not be represented in Congress or the state Legislature. Jones also said for individuals with a higher income, it is usually easier to take time off work to get to the polls and vote.
In South Montgomery County, the areas with the highest voter turnout were slightly older but were more likely to also be wealthy, when compared to 2016 U.S. Census data. Montgomery County Voter Precinct 58—ranked highest in The Woodlands area with 70.6 percent registered voter turnout—is located in ZIP code 77381, which has a median age of 43.2 years old and median annual income of $102,528. Harris County, Voter Precinct 0955 had a voter turnout of 68.7 percent and is located in ZIP code 77389, which has a median age of 35 and a median annual income of $115,738.
Comparatively, the area with the lowest turnout—Montgomery County Voter Precinct 84— is the least wealthy in The Woodlands area with a median annual income of $68,597 and was slightly younger with a median age of 35.2 In Precinct 84, just 47.6 percent of voters participated this year.
“The higher your income ... voting for you is a much less costly exercise than it is for somebody who works from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. every day and can’t get any time off and doesn’t have a car,” Jones said.
Lecocq said she believes millennial voters often do not understand the effects their votes have.
“When [millennials] vote today, their vote will have more impact in their lives than my vote when I vote today. They’re going to be around for a lot longer to experience the effects of every vote,” Lecocq said.
Harris County votes blue
While Montgomery County stayed red this November, Harris County turned blue.
Several longtime Republican-held seats were flipped this year in Harris County, including the offices of county judge, county treasurer, county clerk, district clerk and Precinct 2 commissioner. Judge-elect Lina Hidalgo defeated the Republican incumbent, County Judge Ed Emmett, on Nov. 6 by more than 19,000 votes, according to official election results.
Nearly 55 percent of straight-party ballots were cast for the Democratic Party in Harris County, according to the county clerk’s office. Compared with the 2016 presidential election, nearly 43,000 more people voted straight-ticket Democrat in Harris County this year while only 8,000 more straight-ticket votes were cast for the Republican Party, county election data shows.
Hidalgo will be sworn into office Jan. 1, as will Precinct 2 Commissioner-elect Adrian Garcia, shifting Harris County Commissioners Court to a Democratic majority.
Emmett held a press conference after the Nov. 13 Commissioners Court meeting about the election and his time in office. He said he believes his loss was a result of Democratic straight-party voting.
“I’ve said it over and over, you have straight-ticket voting where 77 percent of the people vote straight ticket, and the margin of Democrats over Republicans is 105,000, and the county judge position is buried way down in the middle of the ballot,” Emmett said. “I made up 87,000 of [votes.] … It just wasn’t enough. There aren’t enough non-straight-ticket voters out there to make up the difference.”