A long-awaited surge in voter participation among Texas Latinos, which Democrats have for months predicted would come to pass thanks to Donald Trump’s incendiary campaign, may have arrived — but it has come in a year when Anglo voting is also on the rise, diluting the impact of increased turnout by the state’s largest minority group.
Through Wednesday, with two more days of early voting left, Latino turnout in 20 of the state’s largest counties had already exceeded Latino early voting turnout in 2012 by 26 percent, according to data compiled by Derek Ryan, a political consultant and former research director of the Republican Party of Texas.
The impact of the Hispanic vote on the election is also on the rise. Voters with Spanish surnames made up 18.8 percent of the 3.8 million ballots cast through Wednesday in those 20 counties, a 20.1-percent increase over their share of the electorate in 2012.
While the uptick is significant, it likely isn’t enough to alter the basic calculus of statewide elections. Non-Hispanic voters still make up an overwhelming majority of the electorate, and they are much more likely to vote Republican.
“I don’t think that (the increase) impacts this cycle, but I do think that it shows that the electorate is changing,” said Ryan, who has compiled the data from daily reports in 20 counties that make up 68 percent of the state’s registered voters. “We’re seeing more Hispanics register to vote and, like the numbers say, we’re seeing more Hispanics show up.”
Antonio González, president of the San Antonio-based William C. Velásquez Institute, a nonprofit public policy think tank that tracks Latino voting patterns, said the early voting trends indicate a growth in Latino voting that is “on the upper end” of normal presidential year increases. According to data from the U.S. Census Current Population Survey, Latino turnout in Texas has steadily risen since 2000, when it took a 23-percent jump. In 2008 and 2012, Latino turnout increased by 11 percent.
“It’s not surprising or earth-shattering,” González said. “The improvement in Latino participation seems to be modestly exceeding the normal rate of improvement.”
The Latino share of the overall Texas vote has consistently increased over the last two decades, rising 47 percent since 1996, according to U.S. Census, which collects data after elections based on several demographic characteristics, including race.
The rate at which Latinos registered to vote in Texas go to the polls is also on pace to exceed 2012 figures: As of Wednesday, 27.4 percent of registered voters with Spanish surnames had already voted. Latinos in the past have been more likely to vote on Election Day than other voters, so they are on pace to surpass their turnout rate from the previous presidential election of 47 percent.
New voters fueling increase
Among those who have voted in past primary elections, about two-thirds of Hispanics are Democrats, according to Ryan’s data, indicating that increased Latino participation is likely to benefit Hillary Clinton.
However, non-Hispanics, who are about two-thirds Republicans, have seen a smaller but still significant increase in early voting. By Wednesday, voters with non-Hispanic surnames in the selected counties had cast about 3,050,000 ballots, roughly matching their early voting total in 2012 with two days left. Hispanic-surnamed voters had cast 710,000 ballots through Wednesday, up from 563,000 in all of 2012 early voting.
González said the effect of Trump, who has promised to deport millions of unauthorized immigrants and build a “beautiful” wall along the Texas-Mexico border, has likely mobilized Latino voters, as has the perception that the presidential election is more in play in Texas than it usually is.
New voters are driving the increase in Latino participation: 18.7 percent of ballots cast by voters with Hispanic surnames came from those with no electoral history in Texas; for non-Hispanics, only 12.8 percent came from new voters.
Latinos appear to have had a sharper increase in voter registrations between the two presidential elections: The number of voters with Spanish surnames in the selected counties increased by 18.8 percent between 2012 and 2016 for a total of 2.6 million voters; for non-Hispanics, registrations increased 11.5 percent to 7.9 million.
Advocates for increased Hispanic representation in Texas are hoping that a surge in participation driven by the presidential election, in particular resistance to Trump’s plans for a border wall and mass deportations, can be sustained past 2016.
Latinos are significantly underrepresented in local governments in Texas, according to a first-of-its kind analysis published by the Statesman last month. Although they make up 38 percent of the state’s population, Latinos account for only 10 percent of its mayors and county judges.
‘Starting to get engaged’
In some areas of the state with traditionally dismal levels of Hispanic turnout, early voting numbers signaled potentially sharp increases in Hispanic participation. In Ector County, where Hispanics make up 55 percent of the population, more than 4,000 residents with Spanish surnames voted in the first week of early voting, nearly one-quarter of the total turnout, according to an analysis by Una Voz Unida, a community group that seeks to increase Hispanic voter participation in the county, whose seat is Odessa.
That marks a 44-percent increase in Hispanic share of voter turnout since 2014, according to numbers from the Texas Legislative Council. (Ector County Hispanic turnout data for the 2012 presidential election, which is traditionally higher than nonpresidential years, was incomplete, according to officials at the council).
“We’re trending upward as a percentage, and I think that’s pretty significant,” said Art Leal, a former mayoral candidate in Odessa and founder of Una Voz Unida. “I think there’s some rumblings in the community with people starting to get engaged politically.”
In Ector County, which was not included in Ryan’s analysis, registered Hispanic voters traditionally vote at half the rate of Hispanics statewide, according to Texas Legislative Council data. A school board election in a heavily Hispanic precinct earlier this year had turnout of just 2 percent.
Leal said the presidential race has energized local Hispanic residents, but that more work needs to be done for Ector County Hispanics to vote in line with their majority status. “That’s the struggle we’ve had: energizing individuals and making them understand how important it is to vote and that they can make a difference,” he said.
Elephants and donkeys
Although Trump – after kicking off his campaign by calling Mexican-Americans “rapists” and saying Indiana-born U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel was biased against him because he was “a Mexican” – has made little effort to court Latinos, both political parties in Texas are actively pursuing their votes.
Manny Garcia, deputy executive director for the Texas Democratic Party, said Hispanic outreach is at the heart of everything the party does.
“We don’t have a niche program for Latino engagement because it’s everything that we do; it’s in every message that we send,” he said. “Latinos are our base.”
Garcia criticized Texas Republicans for saying they want to reach Latino voters while also supporting voting restrictions like the voter ID law and immigration hardliners like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and Trump.
However, Texas GOP spokesman Michael Joyce said backing candidates who favor strong border security measures is not in conflict with representing Texas Latinos.
“We understand and we feel that the Hispanic community understands that border security is a very important issue,” Joyce said. “If you talk to voters in the Rio Grande Valley, they’ll tell you that border security is important.”
In June, Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Mechler won re-election against former Harris County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill, who ran a fire-breathing campaign and attacked Mechler for his focus on Latino outreach, among other issues.
“We understand that the state of Texas is already a majority-minority state,” Joyce said, referring to the fact that African-Americans and Latinos constitute more than 50 percent of the state’s population.
Staff writers Eric Dexheimer and Jonathan Tilove contributed to this story.