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Early voting turnout in 2024 Texas primaries slumps compared to 2020

By Andrew Park and Pooja Salhotra, The Texas Tribune

Early voting turnout in 2024 Texas primaries slumps compared to 2020” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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More than 200,000 fewer Texans participated in early voting during the 2024 primary election compared to the 2020 primary – despite an overall uptick in the number of registered voters in the state.

About 10% of registered voters, or 1.8 million people, cast a ballot during early voting, which ran from Feb. 20 to March 1. That marked a significant decline from the last presidential primary election in 2020, where 12.6% of registered voters participated early.

Voters across all 254 counties are choosing Democratic and Republican nominees for the presidential election, as well as for representatives in Congress and the Texas Legislature. Lower-level judges and county offices are also on the ballot.

Democratic turnout accounts for the entirety of the decline in early voting numbers – Republican participation increased slightly compared to 2020 but not by enough to counter the sharp decrease in votes cast early in the Democratic primary. About 1.2 million votes were cast in the Republican primary and about 600,000 were cast in the Democratic primary.

Voters can also cast a ballot on election day which is on March 5.

The decline in early voter turnout was most pronounced in the state’s 28 border counties, where the share of registered voters who voted early dipped from 12.7% percent in 2020 to 9.1% this year. Turnout declined by similar margins in the state’s most populous, urban counties of Harris, Bexar, Dallas and Travis, where only 8.1% of voters turned out compared to an 11.4% turnout in 2020. Similar declines occurred in the state’s fast growing suburbs of Tarrant, Fort Bend, Collin, Denton, Hays and Williamson counties that together account for 3.75 million registered voters.

Meanwhile, turnout in the 216 mostly rural counties that historically vote strongly Republican remained most similar to 2020 and had the smallest dip in participation rates, about 1.5 percentage points.

Experts attribute the decline to voter apathy and a shortage of competitive races, especially for Democrats.

“I think there is less enthusiasm for the big matchup in 2024,” which is almost certain to be between former president Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “We’ve been there, done that, and I think a lot of voters are kind of sitting on the sidelines until things change.”

Rottinghaus said he was not surprised to see stable turnout in red counties, where Republican contests have drawn considerable attention and funding as Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton each seek revenge after an eventful legislative session. Paxton is fighting to unseat the House Republicans who voted to impeach him, while Abbott has publicly targeted Republicans who opposed school vouchers in last year’s legislative sessions.

Democrats do have a competitive statewide race that will determine who will challenge U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in November. But some voters may have written that race off because the U.S. Rep. Colin Allred has significantly outraised his Democratic Senate primary opponents, including state Sen. Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio, Rottinghaus said.

“It’s a kiss of death for voter turnout when people see elections as being not competitive,” he said.

Voter turnout also tends to be lower among younger cohorts, and Texas has one of the youngest populations in the country. The median Texan is 35.5 years old, compared to the national median of 38.9, according to a 2023 U.S. Census report.

Only about 75,000 people under the age of 30 voted early this year, roughly equivalent to the number of people ages 85 and older who voted early, according to a report by Derek Ryan, a political consultant.

Texas has experienced significant population growth in recent years, contributing to an overall increase in the number of registered voters. The population grew by 4% from January 2020 to January 2023, the majority of which was driven by migration, not new births. That growth did not necessarily translate into more early voters, though.

Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University who has studied voting behavior, said this may be because candidates don’t usually target new residents, whose voter history may be unknown to them.

“What really motivates people to vote is someone asking them to vote,” Stein said. “Candidates may not want to turn out those registered voters because they don’t know much about them — they don’t know where they came from, they don’t know how they voted, we don’t have party registration.”

The early voting tally includes those who voted through a mail-in ballot. Mailed ballots accounted for 6.3% of early votes this year, a decline from 2020 when they made up roughly 10% of votes. In 2021, Texas added new requirements to voting by mail. The new law required voters to provide their driver’s license number or part of their Social Security number on their ballot application.

The new law, among other changes to voting requirements, can confuse voters and contribute to low turnout, Stein said.

“Even the most frequent and hardy voters are confused about their state laws,” said Stein, who has studied voting nationally. “I think Republicans are going to look at their laws and procedures in the next session. I think they are realizing that they are aggravating voters.”

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