The year 2020 has been defined by significant change. From the many disruptions and adjustments associated with the COVID-19 pandemic to the renewed and evolving conversations surrounding racial injustice in America, each month has brought with it new reasons to reflect on and adapt to the shifting circumstances we’re all facing. Amidst these many challenges is another galvanizing moment — the 2020 election.
In addition to the presidential election, a number of state and local offices are on the ballot, and a record-setting number of registered voters in Texas are heading to the polls to make their voices heard. And while no one can truly predict the outcome of an election, we can examine previous trends to understand what lies ahead — both encouraging and troubling — when it comes to civic and electoral participation in Houston.
The total number of registered voters increased in all three counties between 2016 and 2018.
More than 3.1 million people were registered to vote in Greater Houston during the 2018 midterm elections. Between 2016 and 2018, the number of registered voters increased between 5% and 6%. Voter registration in Greater Houston grew faster than the rate for Texas (4.6%) and defied a national downward trend, as national voter registration fell by 3% during the same time period.
Voter registration’s upward trend continues heading into the 2020 elections. As of October 12, 2020, Harris County has a record-high 2,468,559 registered voters — a 4.7% increase over 2018.
While increased voter registration inherently suggests increased engagement, voter turnout is the ultimate indicator of participation in our democractic system. Not only were more people registered to vote in the Houston area in 2018, they also voted at higher rates.
Voter turnout has remained steady for the last three presidential elections.
Voter turnout in the three-county region has remained flat over the last three presidential elections, with the highest turnout rates consistently in Fort Bend and Montgomery counties. However, changes in voter participation during midterm elections tell a very different story.
More than half of registered voters in the three-county region voted in the 2018 midterm elections.
Fewer than half of registered voters — in the three-county region and across the nation — participated in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. However, voter turnout in 2018 surged nearly 20 percentage points in all three counties, with 53% to 59% of registered voters in each county casting a ballot.
While it’s still too early to tally overall voter turnout for the 2020 election, early voting data suggests that the trends exhibited in midterm turnout and voter registration may continue into the presidential election, with record turnouts recorded for early voting in Harris County multiple days in a row.
Residents in Greater Houston are more likely to vote now than in recent history. This is true despite the fact that numerous barriers — both in Texas and Greater Houston — present significant challenges and obstacles to voting. A recent study found that the cost of voting for Texas residents is the highest in the nation, based primarily on policies that make voting more difficult and time consuming. Consequently, Texas’ voting laws disproportionately affect Black residents and other people of color and could potentially undermine future civic enthusiasm.
Disparities in voter registration in Greater Houston
Despite recent growth in overall voter registration, some groups are less likely to register than others. Greater Houston sees disparities in voter registration along race/ethnicity, nativity status, and educational attainment.
Black voters in the three-county region have the highest voter registration rate. .
While 70.4% of eligible Black residents and 68.0% of eligible white residents in Greater Houston were registered to vote in 2016, only 52.3% of eligible Hispanic residents were registered. The data indicate that citizens with higher levels of education tend to register to vote at the highest rate.
What happens after the elections?
While increased civic interaction, engagement and mobilization are to be expected during an election cycle, what happens after the polls close is arguably just as important. Our democractic system is rooted in the ideal that elected officials represent the needs of their constituents in our country’s high offices — a notion that requires trust and communication between elected officials and the people they represent. However, this isn’t always how things work out in the Houston area.
Ideally, public officials are able to hear directly from their constituents so that they can act on community concerns in the course of their duties. However, in Greater Houston, people contact elected officials at lower rates than the rest of the state and the rest of the country.
Greater Houston residents contact elected officials at nearly half the national rate.
In Greater Houston, only 6.1% of residents contact their elected officials at least once a year, compared to 8.1% at the state level and 11.0% nationally. This translates to about one out of every 17 residents. Ideally, this would suggest that Houston residents are happy enough with their elected officials that they don’t feel they need to contact them, but a survey of Houston-area residents found otherwise.
Houston-area residents are mostly split on whether or not they trust their local governments.
When asked whether their local government can be trusted to do what’s best for the community in a 2014 survey, Houston residents had a somewhat mixed response. More than half of Harris County residents responded favorably compared to 51.9% of Fort Bend County residents and 48.8% of Montgomery County residents. More recent national data show that 20% of American adults trust the federal government to “do the right thing” almost always or most of the time.
While this doesn’t mean that elected officials can’t or don’t deliver on campaign promises and community concerns, it does indicate that our region may still have work to do in increasing positive civic engagement and confidence among all residents.
Understanding what lies ahead for Houston
As of October 19, Texas is on pace to see record-setting voter turnout in 2020, with a predicted 70% of the state’s 17 million registered voters expected to cast their ballots. Regionally, the three-county area is already recording high voter turnout; Harris County has seen record-high early voter turnout, nearly 56,000 Fort Bend County residents cast their ballots in the first three days of early voting, and nearly 48,000 early voters made their voices heard in Montgomery County during the same time period — a new record for the county.
Ensuring that this increased enthusiasm at the polls translates to meaningful engagement within our communities requires continued education and open conversations throughout the year — not just during election cycles. Understanding Houston is designed to help our region do just that by connecting people with key data about life in our communities, extending our platform to guest bloggers and sharing the latest updates with our followers on social media.
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