Texas' early vote sets record

November 11, 2008 5:09:53 PM PST
A whopping two-thirds of Texans cast ballots early this year, following a trend of growing early-vote numbers in the Lone Star State and putting Texas among the leading states in early and absentee voting. The record early-vote wave made for shorter lines and generally smooth polling place operations on Election Day, according to the Texas Secretary of State's Office.

"People just really like the convenience of early voting," agency spokesman Randall Dillard said Tuesday. "Early voting is what we were urging people to do and what the counties were urging people to do."

Of the more than 8 million votes cast in Texas in the presidential race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, a record 5.35 million were cast early, or 66 percent of the total. In the 2004 presidential race, 51 percent voted early in Texas.

Besides Oregon -- which has a vote-by-mail system where 100 percent of ballots are cast early -- Colorado was among the leaders with 75 percent of votes cast early, and Nevada had 67 percent. New Mexico had 60 percent early voting, and Florida had 52 percent. Washington state votes almost entirely by mail, and unofficial and incomplete results show upwards of 60 percent voting early.

Convenience was definitely a draw.

In Texas, registered voters can cast early ballots in person for any reason at pre-set polling places in their county over a 12-day period. Eligible voters can also seek mail-in ballots. On the day of the election, voters must show up during a 12-hour span at their assigned precinct to cast a ballot.

But Republican and Democratic political operatives in Texas say excitement over the presidential election drew early voters.

"There was so much pent-up anticipation for this presidential election that people just couldn't wait. We were told it was historic, we wanted it to be historic. So when the gates opened, people came," said Austin-based Republican consultant Todd Olsen.

The state Democratic Party stressed straight-ticket voting among early voters. Though it didn't pay off in the presidential race -- McCain carried the traditionally red state -- or in statewide campaigns, state party spokesman Hector Nieto and the Democrats give credit to early and straight-ticket voting for their party's victories in local elections in Harris and Dallas counties and in some legislative races.

Both major political parties put a heavy emphasis on turning out early voters, said Daron Shaw, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has examined national early vote trends.

"The political parties are making aggressive efforts to get votes in the bank," and in last week's election, those efforts targeted young people, senior citizens and people who have voted early in the past, Shaw said.

Among the state's large counties, Collin County and Fort Bend County -- two staunchly Republican areas -- led the way in early vote percentages with 52 percent of voters turning out in each of those counties before the election. In actual numbers, Harris County, the state's most populous, including Houston, led with 733,758 early voters in person and by mail, or 38 percent. Dallas County had 508,070 early voters, or 42 percent.

Several near the Texas-Mexico border -- Hidalgo, Cameron, Nueces and El Paso counties, all overwhelmingly Democratic -- had the lowest percentages in early vote turnout among the 15 counties with the most registered voters.

By getting someone to the polls early, a party or candidate who may be counting on a particular vote removes from the equation something coming up in a voter's personal life that would prevent him or her from casting a ballot, he said.

Several types of early or absentee voting can be categorized as "convenience voting," and states with those voting systems tend to be concentrated in the West because of their traditional approaches to publicly accessible government, Shaw said.

"Texas is sort of more western than it is southern in terms of those sort of arrangements," he said.

Shaw predicted more states in the West will adopt early voting systems and said the next generation of convenience voting may include Internet balloting, something already experimented with on a limited basis in Arizona.

Olsen said campaigns have developed more sophisticated approaches to targeting early voters over the past few election cycles. He said early voting doesn't necessarily benefit one party or the other in Texas, and that it helps the party or candidate with the momentum as early voting begins.

One effect of early voting is fewer late attacks among candidates, he said, because as Election Day arrives many have already cast a ballot and the negative campaigning doesn't influence as many voters.

"That's better for democracy," he said. "I don't think you see as many Hail Mary-type attacks."

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