Voter & Non-Electoral Participation 

Voter registration and turnout levels in the region have risen while non-electoral participation lags

The 2020 election inspired the biggest increase in voter registration and turnout in the region’s recent history, but Houston has more work to do on other measures of civic engagement. 

Why voter and non-electoral participation matters to civic engagement in Houston

Of the various ways in which citizens can engage in a civil society, the act of selecting our representation at the local, state and federal levels is one of the most obvious and basic. 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.” In October 2020, the Cost of Voting Index found that Texas makes the process of registering to vote and voting the most challenging among all states in the nation by having a restrictive voter registration process, fewer polling sites, and voter ID laws. Contacting officials once they have been elected is also an important indicator of civic engagement as it requires citizens to remain up to date on issues and to voice opinions and preferences on public policy.

By coming together with an informed perspective on civic participation in our region, we can do more not only to address barriers to higher voter turnout but also continued engagement between elections; thereby, increasing civic engagement in our communities and accountability in the political process.

The data

Voter registration continues to grow in the three-county area

In the United States, citizens 18 and older can vote in an election. The U.S. Constitution grants the states the responsibility of overseeing federal and local elections. This means the way in which elections are administered differs from state to state. For example, in all but one state a person must register to vote before they are allowed to participate in an election. In Texas, a person must register to vote 30 days prior to an upcoming election. The applicant must submit an application to the county registrar and meet several requirements in order to become a registered voter. 

The total number of registered voters in the three-county area has grown steadily over the past 12 years in parallel with the growth in the overall population. Since the 2008 presidential election, Harris County has gained over half a million registered voters. Since 2008, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties have increased their number of registered voters by 61% and 52%, respectively, compared to 27% for Harris County.

Texas saw its number of registered voters decline immediately after the 2008 presidential election, but the number of registered voters has steadily increased since 2010. As of 2020, Texas now has nearly 17 million registered voters. At the national level, the change in registered voters has fluctuated over the past 12 years. However, it reached a new high of 168 million registered voters in 2020.

Registering to vote is the first step to voting in local and national elections. All three counties have higher shares of eligible voters who are registered voters than both the state and the nation. Despite this strength, there is still a large number of people who are eligible to vote but who are not yet registered.

In Fort Bend, 95% of the eligible population is registered to vote, as is 93% in Montgomery. Combined, this represents approximately 50,000 people who could be registered. In Harris County, the registered voter rate is lower, at 88%, reflecting about 320,000 eligible voters who are not yet registered. Harris County’s voter registration rate fell from 88% in 2008 to 82% in 2014 and did not fully rebound to its 2008 level until the 2020 presidential election.

Research shows that voter registration rates vary by demographic characteristics. For example, educational attainment plays a role in the likelihood of registering to vote. In the nine-county Houston metropolitan area in 2020, citizens of voting age with lower levels of education were less likely to be registered voters than their more educated counterparts. The registration rate for residents with at least a bachelor’s degree was 25 percentage points higher than those with a high school diploma only. 

In 2020, Black citizens had the highest voter registration rate among selected racial/ethnic groups (82%). Additionally, Hispanic citizens were 13 and 22 percentage points less likely to be registered to vote than white or Black residents, respectively. Between 2016 and 2020, Black voters made the most gains in registration (11-point increase), while Hispanic registered voters increased 7 percentage points. Between 2016 and 2020, the share of citizens who registered to vote increased for all groups including Hispanics but estimates indicate their voter registration rates remain the lowest of the three racial/ethnic groups in this data set.

Hispanic citizens were 13 and 22 percentage points less likely to be registered to vote than white or Black residents, respectively.

While not represented in the data set above, nationally, Asian Americans increased their turnout rate by more than any other racial or ethnic group between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, with 59% of Asian-American citizens of voting age voting. Voting rates vary depending on Asian-American ethnic group with Indians (71%), Japanese (66%), and Koreans (60%) voting at the highest rates (and much higher compared to 2016). Furthermore, naturalized citizens were more likely to register to vote than native-born citizens.

Record high voter turnout for the 2020 presidential election, still lagging U.S. participation rates

Voting in the U.S. is not mandatory and is considered both a right and a privilege. Depending on eligibility criteria, which states determine, voting can be done in-person or by-mail and conducted early or on election day. As our population grows we expect to see more voters in our region, and voter turnout in presidential elections typically exceeds that in midterm elections. Nearly 2.3 million people in our region cast a ballot In the 2020 Presidential Election. About 72% were cast in Harris County (1.6 million), 16% in Fort Bend (357,000) and 12% in Montgomery County (271,000). 

Voter turnout rates can be measured in two ways: by the number of people who cast a ballot among those who registered to vote; and the number of people who cast a ballot among those who are of voting-age U.S. citizens. The former indicator tells us the level of participation among those who are eligible, whereas the latter tells us something about the levels of interest in the political process in a region overall.

The 2020 presidential election inspired the highest levels of voter participation in each of the three counties, as well as in Texas and the U.S., despite occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic. Voter turnout increased almost 10 percentage points in Fort Bend between 2016 and 2020, compared to a 7.8-point increase in both Harris and Montgomery counties. This high voter turnout continues the trend that started with the 2018 midterm election, in which voter turnout rose more than 20 percentage points in all three counties compared to 2014. However, our region’s presidential and midterm turnout rates continue to lag considerably compared to those of the U.S. overall.

The region and state’s lag in voter turnout does improve when comparing the citizen voting age population turnout instead of the registered voter population turnout. For example, 71% of Fort Bend’s citizen voting age population voted in the 2020 election. Montgomery saw 68% of its voting age population cast votes in 2020 as well. These turnout rates are higher than the U.S. rate of 67%. In Harris County, 59% of those eligible to vote in the 2020 election did so. In other words, over 40% of Harris County’s eligible voters didn’t participate in the most recent election. Even in Fort Bend and Montgomery counties, one in four eligible voters sat out the 2020 election. Although the voter registration rate in the three-county area is higher than the national average, the turnout rate still lags. 

While there are many ideas on how to improve voter turnout in Texas, including same-day voter registration and automatic registration for 18-year-olds, some political analysts believe the lack of competitive races at the higher levels of government dissuade potential voters in Texas from exercising their right to vote. Encouraging more people to run is an important aspect of the electoral system that can lead to an increase in voter participation.1

In addition, given the racial/ethnic diversity of our region, targeted voter registration and voter turnout efforts among the Hispanic/Latino population and less educated populations are necessary to increase voter participation in the region overall. Research has shown campaign or “get out the vote” outreach efforts can promote voter turnout. Nationally, while most eligible voters reported that they received a campaign contact before the 2020 election, lower shares of Hispanic/Latino and Asian-American voters reported being contacted across various methods (e.g., mail, flyers, text message, email, phone call, home visit).

Early voting is an increasingly popular choice for the region’s voters

One aspect of the states’ responsibility in overseeing elections is to decide if, when, and how to allow voting opportunities prior to Election Day. Research indicates early voting is an effective approach to increasing voter turnout — particularly among women and those of working age — by allowing increased time and flexibility to cast a vote.2

In Texas, a person may vote early in two ways: by showing up in person during the prescribed early-voting period or by voting by mail. Early voting has been a consistently popular choice with voters in the three-county area. In fact, for every November election in the past 12 years, more than 50% of the total votes were cast during the early-voting period. The 2020 election saw an even greater increase in early voting, with more than 88% of the votes in the three-county region being cast before Election Day, likely because of the pandemic and a desire to avoid crowds.

For every November election in the past 12 years, more than 50% of the total votes were cast during the early-voting period.

Access to early voting varies by method. In Texas, any registered voter may vote early in person, but to vote early by mail, the registered voter must complete an application for the ballot by mail (previously referred to as “absentee voting”) if eligibility criteria are met. For the 2020 election, 90% of early ballots cast in Texas were in-person. Fort Bend and Montgomery follow a similar pattern, with 91% and 90%, respectively. In Harris, in-person early voting was slightly lower at 88%. 

It is not possible to compare early-voting methods across the U.S. as there are significant differences in election laws. For example, five states conduct all elections entirely by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah.

Contacting public officials is a rare occurrence in Greater Houston

The ability to contact elected officials to discuss our concerns is one of the trademark features of American democracy. However, few in our region take advantage of this right.

In 2019, 6.5% of the Houston MSA population contacted a public official at least once a year. This is similar to the state rate but lower than the national rate of almost 9%. When people don’t reach out to their elected officials, not only do they lose the chance to advocate for their position, the elected official loses the ability to understand how a policy will directly affect their constituents.

Census participation is an important component of civic health

Another constitutionally designated civic activity is participation in the decennial census. Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution mandates a count of every person living in the United States. The importance of an accurate count cannot be overstated. Not only does it determine how many seats a state has in the House of Representatives, it is also used to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds. In 2016, Texas received an estimated $44 billion from the 10 largest census-guided programs. An undercount can affect the distribution of federal money for the next 10 years. For example, according to a study by the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, a 1% undercount in Texas’s 2010 population would have cost the state almost $300 million in tax-payer dollars returned to Texas in 2015.3

Being proactive in responding to the census count ensures states continue to receive the correct amount of federal funds for health clinics, school lunch programs, disaster recovery initiatives and other critical programs. Households that don’t return their census forms are counted by census workers walking neighborhoods and visiting households, which increases the chance of not being counted. In fact, CUNY’s Center for Urban Research has found that low self-response rates correlate to lower census quality where people are not counted.4

While most states set up a statewide commission to help ensure an accurate count, Texas was one of three states that did not support this initiative. Given the lack of coordination at the state level, local governments tried to fill this role. Fort Bend created a Complete Count Committee, while Harris County and the City of Houston teamed up to create their own Complete Count Committee with a website, outreach program, and toolkit.

With those efforts, over 75% of households in Fort Bend County self-responded to the 2020 Census online, by phone, or by mail. This was a three-point increase from the 2010 Census and is above both the state and national rates. Montgomery County’s self-response rate was 67% for both the 2010 and 2020 census. Despite the outreach efforts, Harris County’s rate fell by two points from 65% in 2010 to 63% in 2020.



  1. Marschall, Melissa and John Lappie. 2018. “Turnout in Local Elections: Is Timing Really Everything?Election Law Journal 17 (3): 221-33
  2. Kaplan, Ethan, and Haishan Yuan. 2020. “Early Voting Laws, Voter Turnout, and Partisan Vote Composition: Evidence from Ohio.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 12 (1): 32-60. (Viewed on 6/14/2021)
  3. Reamer, A. (2018). Counting for dollars 2020: the role of the decennial census in the geographic distribution of federal funds. Report 2: estimating fiscal costs of a census undercount to states. George Washington Institute for Public Policy. Retrieved from
  4. Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center of City University of New York (2020). Census Self-Response Rates Mapped and Analyzed: 2000, 2010, and (soon) 2020. Retrieved from,-2010,-and-(soon)-2020