Friday, October 17, 2008

500,000 early voters in Harris County

That's more than several states will have for the entire election cycle:

An unprecedented half-million Harris County voters are expected to cast early ballots for the presidential race and other offices during the two-week early voting period, an increase sparked in part by political parties and candidates urging supporters to vote before Election Day.

In response to the forecast of a record-high early vote that starts Monday in Texas, county officials have added extra polling stations and voting booths and new auxiliary equipment to keep waiting lines as short as possible.

Also, Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman has published figures on average hourly voter traffic at each polling station in the 2004 presidential election, so citizens can see which centers are likely to have the shortest lines this time. And she plans to conduct daily news briefings about early voting at five locations next week, from Humble to far southwest Houston.

Previously I noted that Kaufman's office projects 1.2 million total votes in the greater Houston area's county will be cast in November's election, and that's a figure that could portend as many as nine million votes in Texas (though I believe the final figure will be closer to eight).

There are several reasons for the anticipated increase in early voting.

The percentage of votes cast early has climbed with every past election, and the trend is expected to continue as voters become more comfortable with the idea of getting voting out of the way before Election Day.

In 2004, almost 40 percent of the Harris County vote was banked by the end of October. The total county vote then was 1.08 million, a 58 percent turnout of all registered voters.

With the participation rate expected to climb along with the use of the early voting options, experts say at least half of the Harris County votes — a half-million or more — will be cast before Nov. 4.

And both parties are gearing up their GOTV efforts ...

The local Republican Party will distribute at least 150,000 "door-hanger" campaign cards in some of its stronghold neighborhoods to get voters to the polls early, chairman Jared Woodfill said.

The Harris County Democratic Party on its Web site urged voters to cast early ballots, explaining: "It allows us to focus on voters who have yet to vote and getting them to the polls."

Some campaign strategists keep meticulous computerized records of voters who have voted early in past elections and will direct some of their limited telephone and mail resources at those voters, Republican consultant Allen Blakemore said.

Many candidates who have been hoarding money for a late deluge of TV, radio and Internet ads will join the onslaught of political messages next week.

The local GOP has also concentrated on sending mail-in ballots to identifiable suburban seniors who reliably vote Republican, and have been bragging that their mail-in ballots will bear significant fruit this time.

Meanwhile the good guys are going to have a bit more fun with it:

Featured speakers include Rick Noriega and Ron Kirk. There won't be a candidate or a band or one of your friends there that you will want to miss. And if for some inexplicable reason you still need to be reminded about why you need to vote Democratic in this election ...

Update: "Turning Houston Blue", from Dave Mann at the Texas Observer (disregard his negative subhead):

... Houston is essentially its own swing state within Texas. Harris County, which encompasses the city and its suburbs, is home to 3.9 million people, outnumbering the populations of 23 states, and is roughly the same population as Oregon. Now consider that Harris County—in theory, at least—is already Democratic. Surveys and polls repeatedly show that more of its eligible voters identify with Democrats. It’s just that many of those people don’t vote. Moreover, the area is growing. Subdivisions are sprouting at the city’s edge like weeds. The people moving in are mostly Democrats. Harris County is undergoing a demographic shift that will soon put Anglos in the minority.

Practically speaking, a Democrat can’t win a statewide race in Texas without carrying Harris County. If the party can increase its turnout just enough in this presidential year to turn Harris County blue, Democrats will control five of the state’s largest counties and could become competitive again in races for governor, lieutenant governor, and U.S. Senate. Democrats are feeling the urgency to capture a statewide race and at least one chamber of the Texas Legislature by 2010 to gain a say in the next round of legislative and congressional redistricting.

But Houston’s size and shifting demographics have local Democrats dreaming well beyond the Governor’s Mansion. They talk of a day when Houston could be for Texas what Philadelphia has been for Pennsylvania—a metro area that votes so overwhelmingly Democratic it provides a large enough advantage to deliver the state almost by itself. (In the 2004 election, Philadelphia handed Democrats a 400,000-vote edge in the state’s largest population center—a margin Republican areas of Pennsylvania couldn’t surmount.)

Harris County Democratic Party Chair Gerry Birnberg points out that if big margins in Houston could help a Democratic presidential candidate capture Texas, the Electoral College map would shift decisively. He says New York and California likely will vote Democratic for a generation. “If you can start a presidential cycle with California, New York and Texas already in your column, there is not an electoral map you can draw that a Republican candidate can win,” Birnberg says. “Harris County is ground zero. We don’t get there without Harris County.”

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