State of Texas: The impact of record turnout for early voting

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) – A record surge of voters brought long lines at polling locations across the state of Texas during the first week of early voting. Experts say that despite the long wait times, voters turned out in historic numbers.

“People came out to vote on the first day, in all likelihood knowing that there would be lines and crowds because they are engaged and enthusiastic,” Texas Politics Project Director Jim Henson said.

The Travis County Clerk’s office reports more than 70,000 people cast their ballots in just the first two days of early voting this week, and cities across Texas also broke records.

Houston voters broke records on consecutive days this week. 128,000 voters in Houston turned out on the first day of early voting, shattering the previous record of 100,000. Houston continued to break records the next day, totaling over 287,000 ballots cast in-person and by mail by the second day of voting.

Dallas also reported record-breaking turnout that led to three hour wait times and lines that snaked around some polling locations. Dallas County voters cast nearly 60,000 votes on Tuesday, breaking the single-day early-voting record set in 2016.

From Amarillo to the Rio Grande Valley, voters turned out in historic numbers. 12,000 Amarillo residents cast ballots on Tuesday, while 25,000 voters turned out in Hidalgo County.

Yet with historic turnout comes complications and long wait times. One Dallas County polling location had to close and turn away voters after one election judge reported being exposed to COVID-19. Travis County publishes wait-time estimates online, but some viewers say the website was inaccurate.

KXAN investigator Erin Cargile spent a day checking the accuracy of the county’s estimates and got answers to explain its discrepancies.

“Sometimes it was spot on – other times it was not,” she said.

At her first stop at the Ben Hur Shrine Center in Central Austin, voters were surprised when the county’s reported 0-10 minute wait time turned out to be far longer.

“There was a huge line,” voter Jennifer Librach Nall told KXAN. “I went up and asked people and they said they had been there for over two hours. And then I left.”

Travis County Clerk says poll workers at the front check-in desk are responsible for updating wait times on the website.

“We really press them to try to keep that number as updated and correct as possible,” she said. “I think they try, sometimes they get busy.”

Who is voting?

The record turnout has a lot of people wondering who is turning out to vote and which candidates could benefit. Derek Ryan with Ryan Data and Research analyzes the daily early voting information from the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

His analysis shows that most people voting early in this election have voted in previous elections. 38 percent have voted in recent Democratic primaries, while 31 percent voted recently in Republican primaries. Nearly 22 percent of early voters had no primary voting history, yet only 9 percent of those who have turned out so far are newly-registered Texas voters.

Dr Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edwards University in Austin, says it is difficult to predict how this turnout could help or hurt one party or another.

“High turnout in Travis County doesn’t necessarily mean great news for Democrats, he said. “It also might just be people who would regularly vote on Election Day now have a little bit more time because of the coronavirus to come out and vote early.”

Governor Greg Abbott said he was encouraged by the voter turnout at an event in El Paso this week.

“It’s always good to see a large voter turnout.  We believe this is a sign of great interest in the election,” he said.

This is the first election without straight-ticket voting. Voters must continue down the entire ballot and make individual decisions if they wish to vote in for each race. Dr. Smith says Republicans likely expect this change to help their party.

“We know the Republicans put the law into effect. And when political parties change electoral law, they’re doing it usually for gain and not for good,” he said. “But we actually don’t know because this is the first time.”

Smith notes this change will likely reduce turnout in down-ballot races, as voters may not continue through each page of what can be a very lengthy ballot in some counties.

“We’re going to get some of what we call ‘ballot melt,'” he said. “The idea that people are going to vote at the stuff at the very top – the president race, the Cornyn-Hegar race, but then as we move down, we may be less likely to vote.”

Governor Abbott this week encouraged voters to cast their choices all the way down the ballot.

Protecting voters from COVID-19

Presidential elections are always costly, but this year’s demand for more workers, more machines, and more polling locations is driving up the price to run this election.

Travis County has transformed 37 sites, from gyms to event centers, into early voting locations. This year, it’s costing the county $6.9 million.

The county is using most of the money to provide PPE for election workers, increase staff to process mail-in ballots, and extend hours at early voting mega-sites on the last three days of early voting.

Governor Abbott also emphasized this week that he extended early voting days this year. He says this will allow voters to cast their ballot in a less-congested location in order to minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure.

Democrats raise concerns about endorsement flyers

Williamson County Democrats are raising concerns about a newly-formed, Democratic group’s endorsements with early voting now underway.

The Rattan Creek Democratic Club launched a website in October — a blog post said the group was formed last summer — with the goal of “urging people to vote a straight Democratic ticket.”

The group recently began distributing endorsement cards in the Rattan Creek neighborhood which caught several people connected to established Democratic groups off guard. While the group endorsed Democrats in well-known partisan races, like Joe Biden for president and MJ Hegar for U.S. Senate, each of the candidates endorsed in non-partisan races has conservative backgrounds, according to Williamson County Democratic leaders.

An endorsement card from the Rattan Creek Democratic Club backed Democrats for well-known partisan races, but picked candidates with conservative backgrounds for non-partisan races, according to Williamson County Democratic leaders

KXAN contacted an email listed on the Rattan Creek Democratic Club website and will update this story when it receives a response.

Ramon Telles Jr., vice president of the Williamson County Young Democrats and a resident of the Rattan Creek neighborhood, had never heard of the Rattan Creek Democratic Club before this week.

“It’s highly unlikely that this group had existed and none of us would be aware of it,” Telles said.

Among the endorsements by the Rattan Creek Democratic Club is Lacey Mase for Round Rock School Board. Mase is a top official in embattled Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office who recently signed on to a letter accusing Paxton of misuse of office.

“I have no idea what this group is or who is behind it,” Mase told KXAN. “I haven’t been notified by any organization that I received an endorsement during the course of my campaign.”

On its website, the Rattan Creek Democratic Club said: “Our endorsement reflects who we believe the best candidate and does not mean they are endorsed by the overall Democratic Party itself or any of its auxiliaries.”

Williamson County Democratic Party Chair Kim Gibly sees this as an attempt to confuse or misinform voters.

Texas law requires political advertisements to disclose who paid for the materials on the face of the advertisement. Political advertisements that cost less than $500 to print and distribute are exempt from disclosure rules.

On the reverse side of the endorsement card, it says that the flier was paid for by the Rattan Creek Democratic Club at a cost less than $500.

Rattan Creek Democratic Club endorsements

“(On) the county’s party slate card, there’s information if you have a question you can track us down and we’ll be glad to try to answer your questions. That other flyer, there’s nothing like that,” Gibly told KXAN. “Maybe they’re busy or maybe they don’t exist.”

Cornell Woolridge, a candidate for Round Rock School Board, is a vocal Democrat who lists his party affiliation on campaign materials. He was not endorsed by the Rattan Creek Democratic Club but is more concerned with the confusion the endorsement card is causing.

“Presidential election is one thing, but if we can’t even trust information that’s coming out of local school board elections, what can we trust?” he said.

The Williamson County Democratic Party is exploring its options, which may include a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Texas regulatory board votes to let social workers decline clients

This week, the Texas State Board of Social Worker Examiners voted unanimously to change part of its code of conduct.

Part of the existing code reads:

A social worker shall not refuse to perform any act or service for which the person is licensed solely on the basis of a client’s age, gender, race, color, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or political affiliation.

TEXAS STATE BOARD OF SOCIAL WORKER EXAMINERS CODE OF CONDUCT

The change will strike sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and disability from that section. The Office of the Governor recommended the change to the board last week in order to more closely align with existing statute, which reads:

The executive council shall take disciplinary action under Subchapter G, Chapter 507, against a person for refusing to perform an act or service within the scope of the license holder’s license solely because of the recipient’s age, sex, race, religion, national origin, color, or political affiliation.

OCC. CODE SEC. 505.451, GROUNDS FOR DISCIPLINARY ACTION

The decision by the board was made without consulting social workers across the state, and now many social worker advocacy groups and LGBTQ+ groups are criticizing the change.

“We know so much of Texas is already underserved by social workers, there are many counties that don’t have a social worker in them. And so there are few resources. And to think that those resources are now able to potentially be selective on who they work with, not based on anything the client brings to the table beyond their own sense of self is just…. those implications could be far and wide,” National Association of Social Workers’ Texas Chapter Executive Director Will Francis said.

“The reality is this sends the message, that it’s okay to discriminate. And that in and of itself may cause someone not to go for services, it could be afraid of that rejection, they could think that this person could turn them away,” Francis continued.

Sue Torres and her wife Kelly adopted their son Larry when he was 15. He first came into their lives in a foster situation.

Courtesy: Sue Torres, pictured left

“He just melded with our family. And we decided to adopt him,” Torres explained.

When she first heard about the new rule change, she immediately felt concerned for kids in the foster care system.

“There’s so many adolescent kids that are in the foster system. That hopefully this new rule won’t, you know, put a roadblock to some of those kids getting adopted,” Torres said.

“While I don’t know if this would essentially legitimize that refusal to work with a same-sex couple, it certainly could give impression you’re allowed to do that. And I think that that just has terrifying implications,” Francis said.

Regardless, the change could still impact kids in the foster care system if they identify as LGBTQ+ and seek help from their social worker.

“It could impact child welfare, it could impact medical care, it could impact psychiatric care, schools, where there are many school social workers, all sorts of community organizations, the list really goes on,” Francis said.

The Governor’s Office said the board’s decision follows typical procedure.

“It’s not surprising that a board would align its rules with statutes passed by the legislature.” spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement.

But, Francis said the board should be able to add to that existing statute.

“Ultimately, the statutes are there simply to provide a foundation that you build a house of rules upon,” he said.

The board’s next meeting is set for Oct. 27 and will be open to public comment.

Supreme Court Confirmation Battle: Texas Senators Committed, Texans Split

Judge Amy Coney Barrett is on a clear path to the Supreme Court after the Senate Judiciary Committee ended confirmation hearings and signaled that her nomination is all but certain to be approved later this week.

Both Texas Senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, are on that committee and will vote to approve her on Oct. 22. Her nomination will then head to the Senate floor, where a simple majority vote will cement Barrett as President Trump’s third successful Supreme Court Justice appointment.

Yet Texans are not as convinced as their senators that Barrett should proceed. A UT/Texas Tribune poll published on Monday, Oct. 12 shows that 47 percent of Texans say the Senate should vote on Barrett’s nomination before Election Day, while 41 percent say the vote should only happen if President Trump is reelected.

The poll shows a predictable divide between Democrats and Republicans, with 81 percent of Republicans wanting a Senate confirmation vote and 77 percent of Democrats wanting to wait until after the election. However, independent voters are almost evenly split. 35 percent favor Barrett’s confirmation vote, while 38 percent say to wait.

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