Michael DuBose, driven by a feeling of dissatisfaction with the city’s direction, joined a smattering of Houston residents who voted Tuesday morning at the West End Multi-Service Center.
The 27-year-old Heights resident said he has few friends paying attention to Tuesday’s election, but he was concerned about the city’s crime rate and taxes, and he wanted to vote against U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston.
It was enough to get him out to the polls. But most registered voters in Harris County didn’t join him.
There were 239,669 ballots cast in Harris County during the early voting period. By Wednesday morning, an additional 211,534 ballots cast on Election Day had been tallied, with almost every precinct reporting, according to the Harris County Clerk’s Office.
In sheer numbers, the total turnout of more than 451,000 voters beat past totals for recent local elections. Still, fewer than one out of five registered voters in Harris County exercised their right to vote — a rate that’s lower than the 2015 General Election.
This election decides who will lead the fourth-largest city in the U.S. for at least the next four years, as well as a host of municipal positions and state and local amendments. Growth in the county’s population has propelled the county to approach record levels of votes cast through early voting, but the percentage of turnout is on par with recent local elections, indicating Houstonians may not be that motivated to cast a ballot.
Polling shows half of likely voters say the city is heading in the wrong direction, propelled by concerns over violent crime, poor city streets and inconsistent city services.
The race for mayor features two well-known Houston figures — Jackson Lee and Houston Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire — and a desire to either see Jackson Lee in office or block her path to victory is further fueling negative attitudes around the election.
“I’ll tell you who I didn’t vote for, Sheila Jackson Lee,” DuBos said. “She’s been in government a long time and hasn’t done much for her constituents.”
Michelle Kirtley, 40, was motivated to cast her vote for Jackson Lee Tuesday morning at the Houston Community College’s West Loop Campus because of the exact opposite sentiment.
“She’s been in government for a long time and been a democrat for a long time,” Kirtley said. “I think she will be a strong candidate for Houston.”
Eighteen people are running for mayor, including former Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia and District I Councilman Robert Gallegos, but strong name recognition has propelled Jackson Lee and Whitmire to a healthy lead over the rest of the field in polling.
If no candidate is able to achieve 50 percent of the vote in any of the local elections, a runoff will be held Dec. 9.
Houstonians are also voting on all the City Council positions and city controller, while those around the area are weighing in on billions in school district bonds, the $2.5 billion Harris Health bond request and 14 Texas constitutional amendments.
Tina Malone, a 57-year-old kindergarten teacher at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, was first in a line of 30 people Tuesday morning before the Trini Mendenhall Community Center polling location opened. Malone was motivated to vote before the school day on Texas Proposition 9, which would add $3.45 billion to the state’s retired teacher pension.
“We gotta prepare,” Malone said. “They don’t pay teachers enough money. It’s getting worse and worse.”
Several other polling places around Harris County Tuesday morning had little or no line to vote.
In raw numbers, Harris County saw an increase in voter activity during this election. As of Wednesday morning, more than 451,000 voters had cast ballots on Election Day and during early voting.
But raw vote totals do not tell the whole story. Significantly more voters are registered in the county: nearly 2.6 million this election cycle, up from 2.1 million in November 2015.
Despite the large number of voters for a local election, less than one out of five potential voters actually showed up to vote this election — about 17 percent.
That percentage is less than the 20 percent turnout in the 2015 local election. The turnout rate during early voting this year was about on par with early voting in 2015, said Jeronimo Cortina, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
“Once you take into account the number of registered voters, turnout is a little bit flat,” Cortina said. “In terms of absolute numbers, yes, it has grown absolutely, but the problem is you have more voters, so when you make that comparison it falls a little bit flat compared to recent years.”
Kiesha Wilson, a Magnolia Park resident who voted at BakerRipley House during the first week of early voting, said she wasn’t motivated by either candidate for mayor to cast a ballot, she just wants the winning candidate to do something about flooding and the poor roads near her home.
“Between the two, it seems like either one would be fine, as long as something gets done,” Wilson said.
This year’s turnout is healthy for an odd year election in Houston. Municipal election years that feature either an open mayoral seat or a high-profile local referendum always tend to see increased voter turnout, local political guru Charles Kuffner said.
There is no incumbent running for mayor this year, but Houston’s familiarity with the two leading candidates may be harming enthusiasm, UH political analyst Nancy Sims said.
“People aren’t necessarily excited about the candidates,” Sims said. “They’re familiar faces, they are people they have known for a long time. They may be supportive of them moving to a new position, but they’re not exciting.”
At 7 a.m. when polls opened, 93 percent of voting centers confirmed opening on schedule, leaving out about 50 poll sites.
Some of the delays were caused by election judges not opening their electronic poll books on time because they didn’t have any voters, said Rosio Torres-Segura, communications administrator for the Harris County clerk’s office. These electronic books alert officials of a polling location being up and running.
By 8 a.m., all 701 voting locations reported being open, she said.
Staff writers Akhil Ganesh, Briah Lumpkins, Danya Pérez and Matt Sledge contributed to this report.