Houston early voting turnout suggests disengagement from 2023 mayoral race

While early voting numbers in Harris County were far from robust, according to two local political science professors, both said there could be a relative uptick on Tuesday, which is Election Day.

Early Voting Kashmere Gardens
Ashley Brown/Houston Public Media
A sign directs voters to the polling location at Kashmere Gardens Multi-Service Center, 4802 Lockwood Dr., on Monday, Oct. 23, 2023.

Harris County has about 500,000 more registered voters than it did in 2015, which was the last time the county's largest city had an open mayoral seat on the ballot.

But while the electorate has grown in and around Houston, to about 2.6 million registered voters countywide, participation in city politics has not necessarily followed suit.

The percentage of voters who cast ballots during the early voting period was about 9 percent both in 2015 and 2023, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston. A total of 239,325 people voted in Harris County during early voting this year, which spanned from Oct. 23-Nov. 3.

Rottinghaus described this year's early voting turnout as "good but not great" and said it signals that Houstonians could be less concerned about Election Day on Tuesday and more focused on a likely runoff in December. Or, he said, it means voters are generally disengaged from this year's candidate field and the issues they've been discussing – even in a crowded mayoral race headlined by two well-known local politicians, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Texas Sen. John Whitmire.

"It's unfortunate," Rottinghaus said. "In a race with high-profile candidates and a lot of money spent, at a time of real importance for the city, people just don't seem more engaged than they have been in the past."

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Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University, said voter disengagement with the municipal election could partly be a consequence of the city's shift from two- to four-year terms for officeholders, beginning with the mayor and city council members who were elected in 2015. When there are fewer years between election cycles, Stein said, there tends to be more frequent communication between politicians and voters while incumbents tend to draw more challengers.

Voter turnout overall and by percentage declined from 2015 to 2019, when incumbent Mayor Sylvester Turner beat Tony Buzbee in a runoff. This year's early voting turnout nearly matched the overall number of votes cast for Election Day 2019, when there were 241,032.

"I think going to a four-year term of office has changed the dynamics," Stein said.

Dynamics also have changed as they pertain to voting by mail, which in Texas became more arduous with the passing of Senate Bill 1, a sweeping voting-related law passed by state legislators in 2021. The number of mail ballots cast during early voting in Harris County dropped from more than 20,000 in 2019 to fewer than 15,000 this year, according to Rottinghaus, who said more voters seem to prefer casting their ballots in person.

He said that could lead to a spike in in-person voters on Election Day, when Harris County will operate 701 polling locations from 7 a.m.-7 p.m.

Stein echoed that sentiment, saying there could be a "slightly higher share of votes cast on Election Day than we've previously seen in an open seat mayor's race."

"We're likely to see more in-person voting on Election Day, because you're seeing less mail ballots come in early," Rottinghaus said. "This puts pressure on the election officials on Election Day to make sure things go right if they have an increased amount of turnout."

Stein said early voting numbers revealed another trend about this year's mayoral election: In a race headlined by a 74-year-old (Whitmire) and 73-year-old (Jackson Lee), the group of people to have cast ballots so far is especially old.

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While the median age in Houston is a shade older than 34, according to the latest U.S. Census data, Stein said 65-and-older voters accounted for nearly 54 percent of the early votes cast in the county, with the 70-and-older set accounting for about 40 percent. That could be because some of the statewide propositions on the ballot pertain to property taxes and older residents are more likely to be property owners, according to Stein.

"I haven't seen that kind of skewing of an election (in terms of age)," Stein said. "And it's not just older voters. It's extremely older voters. They own property, they own their homes, and they have what I will call a stake in everything that's on the ballot."