Early voting for the November 2023 election saw more than 224,000 voters in Harris County flocking to the polls to cast their ballots ahead of Election Day on Tuesday.
According to Brandon Rottinghaus, political science professor at the University of Houston, this surpassed in-person early voter turnout during the 2015 general election — which also featured an open seat in the mayoral race on the ballot.
“The reason that early voting is high and continues to rise is that it’s become more of a norm of how people vote,” Rottinghaus said. “You’ve got fewer mail ballots that are being returned, and people are choosing to vote in person more than before.”
Just shy of 15,000 mail ballots were returned by the end of early voting last week, which Rottinghaus said is significantly down from the general election in 2015 that saw almost 30,000 returned.
In a press conference held last week, County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth said Harris County election officials sent out about 20,000 mail-in ballots to voters who were either older than 65, have a disability or met other eligibility requirements to vote by mail.
She added that county election officials expected to receive more mail-in ballots ahead of Election Day, projecting that they would receive about 85 percent of the total ballots sent out – roughly 17,000 mail-in ballots.
Harris County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth had said last week that the county expected to receive more mail-in ballots between then and Election Day on Tuesday.
Photo by Faith Bugenhagen
Nancy Sims, political analyst and lecturer at the University of Houston said the county's falling short of expected mail-in voters could increase in-person turnout on Election Day.
Sims said the main ballot measure driving voter turnout thus far is the highly-contested Houston mayoral race, which features 18 candidates vying for term-limited Mayor Sylvester Turner’s seat.
“I’ve talked to some poll workers who said they felt like people are coming in and voting for mayor and walking out without voting for other races or any of the constitutional amendments,” she said.
According to Sims, Houston’s City Controller and the city council member races got lost in the shuffle of the showdown between mayoral frontrunners Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and State Senator John Whitmire.
Rottinghaus said that the smaller races that are garnering voter following are the council races with a lot of candidates and those that feature candidates with more name recognition.
He added that the city council race for District G, which has Houston-area attorney Tony Buzbee going head-to-head with incumbent Mary Nan Huffman and fellow candidate Enyinna Isiguzo, is the race that has likely captured most voters' attention because of Buzbee's candidacy.
Well-known attorney Buzbee previously ran for mayor in 2019 and more recently successfully represented Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton during the Texas Senate's impeachment trial against Paxton.
Rottinghaus said the citywide, county and statewide propositions also follow suit of the down-ballot races – with only a small population of voters keeping track of these measures.
“Those propositions don’t have a lot of juice in the electorate. People aren't that interested in the process,” he said.
Rottinghaus said those supporting the two citywide propositions on the ballot for Houston voters, Proposition A and B, are likely more politically inclined.
One proposition would give council members more authority by making it easier for them to put an item on the agenda. The other would increase the city’s representation relative to Houston’s population on the Houston-Galveston Area Council – the board responsible for distributing federal funds to ongoing regional projects.
Bob Stein, Rice University political science professor, said despite these measures not directly drawing voters to the polls, he expects them to pass.
“We know that the people who’ve been advocating for these changes are most likely to vote for them and get to the bottom of the ballot,” he said.
Stein said the county measure for the heath system, Proposition A, which provides $2.5 billion in bonds to rebuild Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital, upgrade Ben Taub Hospital and renovate county health clinics is getting the most attention from voters.
However, Stein added that the 14 constitutional amendments are likely getting more overall voter support because these measures either put money in the people's pockets or place taxpayers' dollars toward state expenditures.
Stein said he expects Proposition 4 – which coincides with the property tax exemptions approved earlier this year during the regular Legislative session – to pass alongside the others.
The only amendment that he could see not receiving approval by voters is Proposition 13, to increase the mandatory age of retirement for state justices and judges because of the ongoing rhetoric surrounding older individuals in politics having the capacity to do their jobs.
Sims said all eyes are now on how Election Day will go, whether the county will have enough supplies, and how long it takes to turn over the results.
“Whether the polling places have ballots, that’ll be the true test,” she said. “And then also, the reporting because this new system we’re using is very hard to tally votes, and the votes come out pretty late.”
Sims added Harris County early results tend to release first, then early returns are reported from other areas later. This could affect the municipal unofficial results because these outside county voter numbers could change the direction of a race or a measure from passing.
“One thing people forget in Houston city elections is that Houston also has a pocket of voters in Fort Bend County,” Sims said.
These voters from Fort Bend have several countywide measures, including two bond packages that would distribute $153 million to the county’s park system and $712.630 million to mobility projects.
They will also decide whether to approve a new tax rate proposal for the school district to boost teacher salaries, increase teacher aid and bus driver pay and add security officers at every elementary school.
Rottinghaus said because operations ran smoothly during early voting, he doesn’t expect any real issues on Election Day. But he added that if there is a deviation from running a good election, Harris County will get serious scrutiny.
"I don't expect to see many problems because the county seems to have addressed a lot of them, and the number of voters is a lot lower than they're likely to see in a midterm or a presidential election," he said. "It's a low-stakes election, but you never know. Humans run elections, and humans make errors. There's always a risk that there are going to be issues."
To mitigate problems such as supply shortages and technical difficulties at vote centers in the November 2022 elections, Hudspeth said the county has increased the number of ballot papers available at the polls, hired election technicians and implemented systems to communicate in real-time and fill any volunteer vacancies.
Hudspeth added that the county is also working to be more efficient in result reporting by revisiting “rally sites” on election night – six locations where judges will drop off their ballots and other voting materials for processing before they head to the central counting center at NRG.
Presiding judges had the opportunity to pick up their voting equipment on either Saturday or Sunday last weekend.
Photo by Faith Bugenhagen
Last weekend, Hudspeth and other county election officials were at the Harris County Election Technology Center overseeing the distribution of voting equipment to the judges that will be presiding over the 701 Election Day polling locations ahead of Tuesday.
The final opportunity for voters to cast their ballot in the November Election is Election Day, Tuesday, November 7, at any of these vote centers.