EL PASO, Texas - Heading into Tuesday’s election, El Paso County voters have already shattered turnout records thanks to an unprecedented surge of early voters.
More than 139,000 people cast ballots in 12 days of early voting that ended Friday, an increase of more than 100,000 from the last midterm election in 2014. It was the second-largest early voting turnout in El Paso history, behind only the 2016 presidential election.
El Paso’s early voting total was up 262 percent over 2014, by far the largest increase among the state’s most populous counties.
Depending on Election Day turnout, the number of El Paso voters could finish between 180,000 to 200,000 – or even higher. That’s compared to 82,000 in the 2014 midterm.
El Pasoans are clearly motivated by two factors – excitement over the Senate candidacy of El Paso Democrat Beto O’Rourke, and an intense dislike of the policies and rhetoric of President Donald Trump. After running a campaign that centered on criticism of immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere, Trump received fewer than 30 percent of the vote in predominantly Hispanic El Paso County – the lowest percentage ever by a major party presidential candidate in El Paso. His family separation policy and other measures as president have been roundly condemned in El Paso.
The makeup of this year’s early voters in El Paso points to another major victory for Democratic candidates. The growth in turnout has largely been fueled by younger, irregular voters who lean heavily Democratic but historically haven’t voted in midterm elections. Women, another major Democratic constituency, comprise an unusually large percentage of voters.
This year’s El Paso early voters are remarkably different than the 2014 midterm election in many ways.
- Voters are significantly younger. In 2014, almost half the early voters were over age 65. This year, fewer than a third of voters are senior citizens. More than one in six El Paso early voters this year is under age 30, compared to one in 20 four years ago. The number of under-30 early voters increased almost tenfold.
- The increase in turnout is largely driven by women, who comprise 55 percent of all early voters. In 2014, they made up 51 percent of the early voting electorate.
- A large proportion of the electorate is voting for the first time. More than 20,000 early voters – one in every seven casting a ballot – have not previously voted in an El Paso election. The 2014 election saw fewer than 2,000 first-time voters.
- Among return voters, most aren’t regulars at the polling place. Three out of five didn’t vote in 2014, and one in five didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election.
This surge of new voters creates both predictability and unpredictability in the election, depending on the race.
- In partisan races, Democrats are likely to expand on their traditionally high voter percentages. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis won 60 percent of the vote in 2014, but because El Paso’s turnout was so small, her margin of victory over Republican Greg Abbott was only about 19,000 votes. With a larger, younger, more female electorate this year, O’Rourke likely will win 70 percent or more of the vote. That will yield a margin of between 70,000 and 100,000 over Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. That expanded margin could become very important if the statewide race is close.
- Other Democrats likely will benefit from the surge of voters supporting O’Rourke and opposing Trump. Historically, close to half of all El Paso voters have cast a straight-ticket Democratic vote, while only about 15 percent cast a straight Republican vote. If that continues this year, other Democrats in statewide races will build up wide margins in El Paso. That could have some impact on other statewide races, though the conventional wisdom is that Cruz is the only GOP candidate facing a serious challenge. (Two notes on straight-ticket voting. This is the last election where the practice is allowed in Texas. And straight-ticket voting in Republican-dominated suburban counties is much higher than what is seen in El Paso. That’s one of the reasons Cruz has long been favored in the Senate race.)
- The biggest local beneficiary of straight-ticket Democratic voting would be Carl Robinson, the Democrat challenging incumbent Republican Andrew Haggerty for the Northeast/West Side county commissioner seat. Haggerty won the seat by almost 12 points in the low-turnout 2014 election. He may find it hard to survive the O’Rourke-driven wave. Haggerty is the only remaining Republican elected in a partisan vote in El Paso. It’s possible that El Paso will have no Republicans holding partisan elected office after Tuesday.
- Much uncertainty surrounds in the four City Council races. This is the first year that the races are being decided during the general election, after decades of being held in May of odd-numbered years. As a result, the turnout is multiple times larger than in any recent City Council election. Many if not most voters know little or nothing about the City Council candidates. Many voters make skip the races; others will vote on name recognition or other factors.
- The biggest uncertainty is on two votes involving issues rather than candidates. El Pasoans are asked to decide a City Charter amendment that would increase pay for the mayor and council; voters in the El Paso Independent School District are asked to decide a “penny swap,” a tax maneuver to pull down more money from the state government. Many or most voters likely have little information on either of these issues. Recent history has shown that large turnouts increase support of tax issues. But the ballot language on both issues is lengthy and complex, so it’s hard to tell how voters might decide these issues.
The huge turnout boost in a four-year cycle – likely more than doubling the vote total – may be unprecedented for a major U.S. city. But El Paso still is voting at a lower rate than most other Texas communities.
El Paso’s early voting turnout is just under 31 percent of registered voters in the county, the fourth-lowest rate among the state’s 30 most-populous counties. Two counties with smaller populations and fewer registered voters than El Paso – Fort Bend outside Houston and Williamson outside Austin – cast more early votes than El Paso.
Still, El Paso appears to be on a positive electoral trend after years of having among the lowest turnouts of any major U.S. city. This is the second straight general election with a turnout surge in El Paso. The number of voters in the 2016 presidential election was 24 percent higher than in 2012. Voting is a habit, and more El Pasoans seem to be adopting the habit.
Robert Moore, ABC-7’s exclusive 2018 election analyst, is an El Paso journalist who has covered local and state politics since 1986.