The Austin Chronicle

Early Voting Low, Election Day Energized

By Richard Whittaker, March 1, 2016, 3:58pm, Newsdesk

It's election time again, and polling places in Travis County for the 2016 Democratic and Republican primaries will be open until 7pm tonight. So far, the county and campaigns have been indicating extraordinary turnout for election day, which is good news after a sluggish start with early voting.

The good sign is that there have been long lines at multiple polling locations since doors opened at 7am. Demand on the system has been so high that the system went down at several sites. Even the Travis County Elections Division website went down due to high traffic from potential voters looking for locations to cast their ballots.

Early voting closed on Friday, and while there's no sign yet of results (those won't be due until the polling places close) but here are some headline numbers:

Total early voting turnout: 92,914 (14.45%). To have some perspective on this, the best comparison is the 2008 primary, which was the last time the White House was vacant. Back then, 115,316 (20.75%) of registered voters took part. That's a drop of 22,402 votes cast. What's more worrying is that the drop has happened while the number of registered voters has gone up by around 90,000.

Democratic early voting turn-out: 61,019 (9.49%). If you want to know why early voting is down from 2008, put it all on the Dems. In 2008, 96,963 early voting ballots were cast in the Democratic primary. There will probably be a lot of soul-searching about what exactly went wrong, especially with so many contentious local races, but the problems may start at the top of the ballot. The Bernie Sanders campaign didn't exist eight months ago, and it's still quite the underdog, if an energetic one. As for the Hillary Clinton campaign, that only opened an Austin field office on the first day of early voting, and has depended on out-of-state phonecalls and a last minute TV blitz.

Republican early voting turn-out: 31,895 (4.96%). That's a dramatic rise since 2008, when only 18,353 voters participated. Why the increase? Because in 2008, the presidential nomination was basically sewn up by John McCain, so there was little driving Republicans to turn out. This time, between the need for Texas GOP loyalists to give Ted Cruz a home victory, and the insanity surrounding Donald Trump, there's a huge amount of energy on the GOP side.

• The simple take-away: Democratic early voting turnout still beat Republican early voting turnout, but the divide has tightened.

• The really surprising – and potentially significant – voting location is the University of Texas Flawn Academic Center, which was the busiest early voting ballot box in the county. This is a real change, because the top location is normally the Randall's at Research and Braker. This time, the UT box beat this by over 1,100 votes.

• That last statistic is potentially good news for House District 49 hopeful Huey Rey Fischer, who has staked his candidacy on the UT votes, and recent graduates. There's another data point that could go in his favor: According to Democratic operatives, roughly half of all votes cast in HD 49 were cast by people who haven't voted in the last three primary cycles. That suggests a younger electorate, which again could favor Fischer. However, he still has an uphill struggle in this seven way race, especially against establishment Democratic favorite Gina Hinojosa. While both (and the five other candidates in the race) are hoping to tag 50% plus one vote, to avoid a run-off, the reality is that they'll be hoping to be in the top two to reach that dreaded second round.

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