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 continued across Texas with about 53 percent of voters statewide participating in the midterm election, an increase from about 34 percent of Texas voters casting ballots in the 2014 midterm, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said he believes the historic voter turnout numbers can be credited to President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and the state’s U.S. Senate race. 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 [Democratic Senate candidate] Beto [O’Rourke did] 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.”

Clark Friesen, coordinator for the Lone Star College-Tomball Center for Civic Engagement, said the attention from the presidential level to the individual citizens made this election feel different than a traditional midterm, which he said he believes increased political involvement.

“People were encouraging each other to vote and really feeling like it was important,” Friesen said.

Despite the record-breaking numbers, about 61 percent and 58 percent, respectively, of registered voters in voting precincts in the Tomball and Magnolia area participated in this year’s election, according to county election data.

“There’s a substantial number of people who stayed home [from the polls]. What if we ever did have 75 percent of the people vote? In a college classroom, 75 percent gets you an average grade, and not one that’s competitive in the work world, but we’re satisfied with 55-60 percent [turnout],” Friesen said.

Straight-party voting

In Harris and Montgomery counties, about 76 percent and 67 percent, respectively, of votes were straight-party.
Steve Leakey, president of the Voter Awareness Council in Montgomery County, 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 Montgomery County election data.

“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,” Leakey said.

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 candidates rather than political parties.

In Harris County, nearly 55 percent of straight-party ballots were cast for the Democratic Party, according to the county clerk’s office. Compared with the 2016 presidential election, nearly 43,000 more people voted straight-ticket Democrat this year, while 8,000 more straight-ticket votes were cast for the Republican party, county data shows.

“Countywide in Harris County there was no substantive Democrat that was compelling enough to get people to turn out to vote,” said Vlad Davidiuk, Harris County Republican Party communications director. “Democrat voters turned out to vote for Beto O’Rourke, and when they went into the booth, they did the easiest possible option and clicked the straight-ticket Democrat option, and then they walked back out.”

Leakey said many straight-party voters do not look at their ballots before voting, so they do not vote in nonpartisan races—such as 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,” he 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.’”

Nearly half of all ballots submitted by eligible voters within Tomball ISD were left incomplete for board of trustee races in November, election results show.

‘Blue wave’ hits Harris County

While Montgomery County stayed red this year, much of Harris County turned blue. Several longtime Republican-held seats were won by Democrats in November in Harris County, including the offices of county judge, county treasurer, county clerk, district clerk and Precinct 2 commissioner. Judge-elect Lina Hidalgo defeated incumbent County Judge Ed Emmett by more than 19,000 votes, according to election results.

Jones said the biggest news of the election, besides the high number of straight-party voters, was the record gap—almost 105,000 votes—between the Republican and Democratic parties’ straight-party voting numbers.

“When you combine those two things together, it made it virtually impossible for any countywide Republican to win—especially since [positions] are so far down the ballot, such as Judge Emmett,” Jones said. “Even somebody as popular as Ed Emmett couldn’t survive a blue wave that was so high.”

During a press conference after the Nov. 13 Commissioners Court meeting, Emmett said he believes his loss was due to Democratic straight-party voting.

“I made up 87,000 [straight-party votes],” Emmett said. “It just wasn’t enough. There aren’t enough non-straight-ticket voters out there to make up the difference.”

However, he said he has faith in Hidalgo and the new administration.

“She’s bright, engaging and she’ll have people around her,” Emmett said. “I don’t intend to be one of those people that every day says something about what’s going on in the county. I’m going to move on with my life, and she’s going to move on with the county.”

Hidalgo will be sworn into office Jan. 1, as will Precinct 2 Commissioner-elect Adrian Garcia, shifting the court to a Democratic majority.

“Timing and circumstance played a role here, as with anything,” Hidalgo said in an email. “Ultimately, our win was made possible by the desire to make change and a team of wonderful people stepping up to make it happen.”

Jack Cagle, Harris County Precinct 4 commissioner and Republican incumbent, was re-elected in November. He said it is important for county administration to prioritize the court’s primary function: to take care of the county’s everyday issues.

“I know in this last political season folks that were running were trying to portray it as a national policymaker role. That’s fine as long as we do not neglect our job,” Cagle said.

Importance of young voters

While turnout increased this year, 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 prior to the 2018 midterm election.

The report ranked Texas 47th in voter turnout for the 2016 presidential election, with only 48 percent of citizens ages 18-24 having registered to vote. Yet 74 percent of citizens ages 55-64 and 78 percent of citizens ages 65 and older had registered to vote in 2016.

Jay Jennings, a postdoctoral research fellow at UT-Austin, said factors contributing to Texas’ low participation in politics and the community include: the rate of new people moving into and around the state and Texas’ rank as one of the youngest states in the U.S.

According to 2017 census data, the median age for Texas citizens is age 34. The median age in the cities of Tomball and Magnolia are 37 and 35, respectively, according to 2016 data.

“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 civilly involved,” Jennings said. “It’s a positive thing—we want more people to move to Texas, and we want young people in the state, but there are also challenges that we need to realize that means we will always have a steeper hill to climb in these measures.”

He said voting equates to representation, so if young people are not voting, they will not be represented in Congress or the state Legislature.

Lecocq said she believes millennial voters often do not understand the effects their votes have.

“Their vote will have more impact in their lives than my vote when I vote today. [Millennials are] going to be around for a lot longer to experience the effects of every vote,” Lecocq said.

Odus Evbagharu, Harris County Democratic Party communications director, said the diverse choices of candidates also brought more attention to this year’s election.

“You’re seeing a lot more diversity in the suburbs, and we’re identifying that. [Those people are] going out there, voting and making sure they’re represented adequately,” Evbagharu said. “You want people who look like you … [and] understand your issues representing you.”

Additional reporting by Zac Ezzone and Vanessa Holt