Early voting for the November 2 election in Texas has begun. The right to vote is an essential cornerstone of the fabric of American democracy. The first article of the U.S. Constitution states that the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are to be determined by popular vote, however voting in the U.S. is not mandatory and is considered both a right and a privilege.
The 2020 presidential election had the highest voter turnout rate in the United States in more than a century, according to the United States Elections Project. Similarly, the three-county Houston area also saw high voter registration rates — among multiple demographic groups — and higher voter turnout in November 2020 than the previous presidential election. However, despite having record high levels of voter registration that typically exceeds the national rate, the three-county area continues to lag the nation in voter turnout.
Almost a quarter of registered voters didn’t vote
Despite the countless disruptions to the “normal” way of life caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Presidential Election saw the highest levels of voter registration and participation in over a decade in the three-county Houston area.
In each presidential election since 2008, the share of voting-age citizens in the three-county area who register to vote has exceeded that in Texas and the U.S. In the 2020 Presidential election, all three counties exceeded voter registration rates by more than ten percentage points compared to Texas and the country as a whole.
However, the percentage of those Houstonians who actually cast their ballot continues to considerably lag the national voter turnout rate.
Nearly 75% of registered voters in Fort Bend and Montgomery counties cast a ballot in 2020, but only 67% did so in Harris County. Voter turnout increased almost 10 percentage points in Fort Bend County between 2016 and 2020, compared to a 7.8-point increase in both Harris and Montgomery counties and a 4.7-point increase in the United States overall.
Voter registration in Greater Houston varies by demographic characteristics
Research shows that voter registration rates vary by demographic characteristics. For example, educational attainment plays a role in the likelihood of registering to vote and is considered one of the strongest indicators of voter turnout.1,2
The voter registration rate in the 2020 Election for residents with at least a bachelor’s degree was 87.3% compared to 62% among those with a high school diploma only — 25 percentage points higher3. This disparity is wider than the 21-point gap between the two groups in the 2016 Election.
Despite naturalized citizens typically being less likely to register to vote than native-born citizens and having a lower percentage of registered voters compared to native-born citizens in the 2016 presidential election, this demographic group saw the largest increase in voter registration rates in the Houston MSA with an over 18 percentage point increase.
Early voting is an increasingly popular approach to casting a ballot
During the 2020 presidential election, early voting was extremely popular in the U.S. with more than 100 million people voting early compared to less than 50 million in the 2016 presidential election.
Early voting has been a consistently popular choice with voters in the three-county area. In fact, for every presidential election in the past 12 years, more than 50% of the total votes were cast during the early voting period. Voters in Fort Bend, Harris and Montgomery counties are more likely to vote early compared to both the nation and the state.
For the 2020 election, 88% of voters in the three-county region cast their votes before Election Day.
In Texas, a person may vote early in two ways: by showing up in person during the determined early voting period or by voting by mail. Although voting by mail was more popular in the three-county area during the 2020 election compared to past presidential elections, in-person voting was still used by the vast majority of early voters.
In the three-county area, the number of early voters who cast their ballot by mail instead of in-person nearly doubled compared to the 2016 presidential election.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many states made modifications to their absentee/mail-in voting procedures. Fort Bend County opened up the Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land as a mega-voting site, allowed residents to cast their vote at any voting location in the county, and extended voting hours. Montgomery County encouraged early voting, extended hours at voting locations, and offered curbside voting for eligible voters. Harris County implemented a number of changes such as providing six 24-hour voting sites during election week, 10 drive-thru voting locations, and 12 locations to drop off mail-in ballots. A survey conducted by Bob Stein, along with other professors at Rice University, with Harris County voters found that 7.2% of respondents used drive-thru voting. Drive-thru voting among Black and Hispanic voters was higher, used by 9.7% and 13.1% of voters, respectively, compared to 5.1% of white voters.4
Your Vote Matters
While our region hasn’t seen voter turnout levels for the past three presidential elections like we’ve seen in 2020, they are still significantly lower than the national rate. Research has shown that Americans are more likely to vote if they know and understand the process, if the rules and regulations are easy to navigate, and if they believe their vote “matters.” The potential perceived benefits of voting range from motivators such as the net benefit of one’s preferred candidate winning over the other candidates and psychological motivators such as social pressure, social benefit, and altruism and egocentrism.
Looking at the cost side, distance to the polling station, changes in polling locations, and strict voter identification requirements can potentially decrease voter turnout while policies such as election day registration or pre-registration have been found to moderately increase turnout. The 2020 Cost of Voting Index (COVI) ranked Texas last in ease of voting due to its voter registration process, fewer polling sites, and voter ID laws. However, election rules and practices also preserve the integrity of the voting process, ensuring accurate and fair elections that are critical to a well-functioning democracy.
The Electoral Integrity Project conducted an expert survey of 800+ scholars of elections, parties, and American state politics about their perceptions of the electoral process across all 50 states and D.C. about the 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections. While the experts overwhelmingly rejected claims of alleged fraud, respondents note previously-cited challenges such as gerrymandering favoring incumbents, news lacking fairness and balance, and social media amplifying misinformation, among other issues, as undermining the electoral process and resulting in waning public confidence in U.S. elections.
No matter who you support or what your belief system is, the act of selecting our representation at the local, state, and federal levels is a fundamental right in the United States and one of the most obvious and basic ways to engage in a civil society. By coming together with an informed perspective on civic participation in our region, we can increase civic engagement in our communities and accountability in the political process.
Be sure to cast your ballot in the November 2 election when Texans will decide on eight constitutional amendments— early voting began this week and ends October 29. Check the elections administrator website in Fort Bend, Harris, Montgomery, or county of residence for details.
1Smets, K., & Van Ham, C. (2013). The embarrassment of riches? A meta-analysis of individual-level research on voter turnout. Electoral studies, 32(2), 344-359. Retrieved from https://www.utwente.nl/en/bms/csd/research/Smets%20en%20Van%20Ham%202013.pdf
2Sondheimer, R. M., & Green, D. P. (2010). Using Experiments to Estimate the Effects of Education on Voter Turnout. American Journal of Political Science, 54(1), 174–189. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20647978
3Houston MSA encompasses Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery and Waller counties.
4Rice University Post-2020 Election Survey of Harris County Voters, retrieved from Rice University’s OpenRICE program by Matthew Hayes, Ph.D.on August 27, 2021. To request a copy of the full report, contact Amy McCaig, senior media relations specialist at Rice, at 217-417-2901 or email@example.com.