TEXAS, USA — This story originally appeared in the Texas Tribune.
Heading into the Lufkin Walmart on Friday morning, Faye Whitefield did not sound too enthusiastic about this midterm election.
“It is what it is,” said Whitefield, a Democrat who planned to vote later that day. “There’s always going to be something to complain about no matter who is in office, whether a Democrat or Republican.”
Another shopper, Atiba Nicholson, was unsure whether he would vote at all.
“I don’t trust the government, anyway,” he said as he left the store. “It doesn’t really matter.”
After two election cycles of record-breaking turnout, Texas’ major political parties are confronting such apathy this early-voting period, which has seen smaller numbers compared to this point during the 2018 midterm election. It has caused Democrats and Republicans to contemplate whether overall turnout will be lower than expected — and whether 2018 was a new baseline or more of an aberration.
After eight days of early voting for the Nov. 8 election, nearly 2.7 million Texans had cast ballots in person or by mail across the state’s top 30 counties with the most registered voters, equivalent to a 19% turnout rate in those counties. By this point in the 2018 election, 3.3 million Texans had voted early in the top 30 counties, for a 27% turnout.
The top 30 counties represent the overwhelming majority of the statewide electorate, amounting to 78% this election. The counties have added 1.6 million voters since the 2018 election.
The 12-day early-voting period ends Friday, and while voting could always pick up, the numbers have prompted both sides to reconsider their expectations.
“I think a month or two ago, people — both Republicans and Democrats — probably would have told you that turnout was probably going to look a lot like 2018,” said Derek Ryan, a Republican data analyst. “Now it seems that 2018 is the outlier, and based on seven days of early voting, it looks like we’re kind of on track right now for turnout that is more close to 2014, 2010, 2006.”
In 2018, 8.3 million voters turned out as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz faced a strong challenge from then-U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, in what was the first midterm election since Donald Trump became president. The turnout rate leaped to 53%, nearly 20 percentage points higher than it was four years earlier.
Heading into this early-voting period, some Republicans — including Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign — had projected a total turnout of at least 10 million, which would be 57% turnout. But after the first week of early voting, they are not as sure, eyeing overall turnout that could fall between 8 and 10 million.
There are ample theories coming from both sides. After Trump’s attacks on mail voting in 2020, more Republicans may be waiting to vote in person on Election Day. Democrats say the numbers may reflect the impact of the new voting restrictions that Abbott signed into law last year. And while O’Rourke has been Abbott’s strongest opponent yet, the race has not drawn as much national attention as O’Rourke’s 2018 U.S. Senate run did. And recent polls have given Abbott a comfortable lead.
In a Monday interview, the executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, Jamarr Brown, said it is too early to make assessments about the turnout levels. But he added: “There are a lot of dynamics that are just different this time.”
“I’m in no rush”
O’Rourke — the Democrat who helped spur the record-breaking turnout in 2018 — said he would “like to see more people voting” during this election. He made the comment after the first three days of early voting.
At the same time, he acknowledged in an interview that his fate depends more on who votes, not necessarily on how many people vote.
“I think many people assumed in 2018 that maximum turnout is just going to produce victories for Democrats, and it did in some places on the ballot, but it didn’t push us over the edge,” O’Rourke said. “A lot of Cruz people turned out as well. So we just don’t know the composition of the electorate so far, who’s participated. So all we can do is what you see us doing — we’re showing up in as many places as we can [to mobilize voters].”
O’Rourke is not the only statewide Democratic candidate who is attuned to the lackluster turnout. Jay Kleberg, the Democratic nominee for land commissioner, posted a video on social media Monday where he said there is “low voter turnout right now” and said the General Land Office “can do great things, but we will not get there if people don’t turn out to vote.”
Democratic Party leaders say they’re worried about a new series of voting restrictions that Abbott signed into law last year. Among other things, the law mandates more stringent identification requirements for mail voting.
“We do need as many people as possible to go out and vote,” Brown said. “But we do know Texas Republicans have made voting harder.”
Texas voters appear not to have the same urgency as the candidates.
Josh Ramirez, a 37-year-old Democrat who was heading into a Lubbock supermarket on Friday morning said he had not voted yet.
“I’m in no rush,” he said, noting he had another week to vote early.
He called school safety his top issue.
“I have a daughter in elementary [school], and I worry about her safety,” Ramirez said. “I don’t want to hear about [critical race theory] or books. I want to hear how they can keep her safe.”
Are Republicans waiting for Election Day?
Republicans are also not entirely pleased with the early-vote turnout. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has been heavily focused on rural Texas in his reelection campaign, suggested Monday he was underwhelmed with turnout in some parts of West Texas.
“West Texas — the Amarillo, Midland-Odessa [areas] — turnout has been very light,” Patrick told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty. “Lubbock’s been better, but Abilene, Wichita Falls — all points in between — it’s been lighter than we’d like to see, so we just need to get people to the polls.”
One big question for Republicans is how many are waiting to vote in person on Election Day given all the scrutiny that Trump applied to mail ballots in the 2020 election. During a rally earlier last month in Robstown, Trump urged supporters to hold off on casting their ballot until Nov. 8.
“It’s harder to cheat when you do it that way,” Trump said, perpetuating falsehoods that American elections are rife with fraud. Those claims have been refuted by multiple audits of local and state elections, local and federal law enforcement officials, as well as members of Trump’s administration and family.
The data suggests people are listening. Mail ballots were down sharply. So far, in the top 30 counties, 201,919 people have voted by mail. At this point in 2018, 324,840 people had returned their mail ballot. And Ryan said his analysis shows that mail voters so far are more Democratic-leaning than Republican-leaning, a reversal from 2018 and prior midterms.
“This is a phenomenon that’s actually flipped, and I think it goes back to President Trump pushing the story that voting by mail isn’t as secure a method it should be,” Ryan said. “And I think that has definitely pushed Republicans to vote either early in person or maybe even pushed them to vote on Election Day,”
While Democrats are betting big on issues like abortion rights and gun violence, Republicans are aiming to turn out voters concerned about the economy and border. They are hoping for the support of people like Diane Hunter, an independent who said Friday she had not voted yet but planned to.
“At the top of the list is inflation. Then schools, then the price of gas,” Hunter said outside the Target in Lufkin, noting she “always look[s] at each candidate and tries to get to know them.”
In Lubbock, Samantha Harris, an independent in her early 30s, also had not voted yet as she headed into a grocery store late last week. She said she “probably” would but just had not thought about it yet.
“It’s Friday,” she said. “Who’s thinking about voting?”