AUSTIN (KXAN) – Texas saw record turnout from voters in the 2020 election, with counties such as Hays and Williamson surpassing the total votes of the 2016 presidential election before early voting even ended. The country itself was expected earlier in November to have the highest turnout in more than 100 years. But, certain counties in the state are still lagging behind when compared to others.
For the top 25 counties in Texas with the most registered voters, the counties that reflect the highest voter turnout percentages in this year’s presidential election are Williamson, Collin and Fort Bend at 76.87%, 75.67% and 74.12%, according to the Texas Election Results website. Some of the counties with the lowest percentages include El Paso, Cameron and Webb at 54.6%, 52.16% and 49.62%.
There’s no one clear reason for these differences in turnout, according to several election administrators from these counties. Bruce Sherbet, the administrator at the Republican-leaning Collin County where 93% of voters did so early, said one of the reasons the county may have seen such higher turnout is how involved both major parties are there. He said Collin acts as a type of barometer that determines whether Democrats or Republicans will be dominant in the state, leading both parties to spend heavily on canvassing, events and advertisements in order to generate voter interest.
“There’s a lot to lose,” Sherbet said. “If Collin County would have switched, you would have seen others in this state starting to really show dramatic switches.”
Collin County has voted Republican in every presidential election at least since 1964. It is considered a bellwether county, meaning it votes in alignment with the national winner of the presidential election, according to The New York Times. The county broke the rule this year, after a little over 51% of the county voted for Donald Trump while Joe Biden won the national popular vote.
Texas’ voting history — and controversy
Sherbet said that Texas was historically one of the more progressive states when it came to voting, as it was one of the first to open up early voting and implement countywide polling places instead of designated locations for voting.
“Those are things that show that this state has not just sat and waited to see what happens,” Sherbet said. “They have been proactively trying to put things in place to make it easier for voters.”
This year, Texas has been the subject of several controversies and conflicts between Democrats and Republicans regarding how the election should be handled. The Texas Supreme Court rejected an effort by Republicans to throw out over 127,000 early ballots from the Democratic-leaning Harris County. Gov. Greg Abbott also put an executive order in place to limit counties to only one mail-in ballot drop off location, which was challenged numerous times in court.
A recent study from researchers in Illinois, Florida and China ranked Texas as the state with the most restrictive voting climate. The study uses a “cost of voting” index that takes into account factors such as registration deadlines, voting restrictions, ID laws and polling hours.
“In particular, Texas has an in-person voter registration deadline 30 days prior to Election Day, has reduced the number of polling stations in some parts of the state by more than 50 percent, and has the most restrictive pre-registration law in the country,” the study states.
Digging into lower turnout
José Salvador Tellez, the elections administrator at Webb County, said he doesn’t believe in voter suppression, as the county saw 10,000 more registered voters this year than in 2016, with the majority voting for Joe Biden in a ratio of roughly two to one. He said one of the reasons for lower turnout overall in the largely white Hispanic and Latino county compared to others is its status as a border county, as many residents may not see the advantage of voting.
Tellez also said that turnout may depend on the quality of the candidate.
“I can’t lobby for any one candidate,” Tellez said. “If the candidate doesn’t organize his base and doesn’t bring out the vote, we’re gonna have a low turnout and incumbents tend to win when that happens.”
Remi Garza, the elections administrator at Cameron County, said Cameron also voted in favor of Joe Biden by a 55% to 45% margin. He said the election went smoothly despite the issue of COVID-19, as the lines were never very significant.
Garza did say that voter suppression was an issue in the county and the state as a whole, especially with changes in rules across the state and actions such as the 2019 House bill that banned mobile voting locations, which he said hurt college and rural communities.
“There have been a lot of moves that I’ve seen that appeared to try to get all elections offices and all the counties in this state to behave exactly the same way,” Garza said. “I think that undervalues the impact of population and the geographic spread of that population.”
Garza said one solution for this would be to separate Texas counties into different tiers based on size in order to address their specific needs and adjust their voter practices. More permanent solutions he suggested included extending the early voting period and increasing the number of early voting sites.
“We certainly saw the benefit of having expanded early voting into the third week,” Garza said. “But it’s difficult to get people to work that long period of time, and they are costly. Early voting sites generally run anywhere from $7,000 to $11,000. We as a community would have to invest in more early voting sites.”