Turnout in primary elections has historically been anemic and 2022 was no exception.
According to the latest count by Harris election officials, of the almost 2.5 million registered voters in the County, only about 344,000 voted in one of the two primaries. That is a total turnout for both parties of just under 14%. In other words, 14% of the electorate just decided who everyone else will get to vote for in November.
This year, the Republicans were able to reverse the 2018 results when the Democrats, for the first time in decades, outpolled Republicans in the Harris County primaries. This year, about 184,000 voted in the Republican primary as compared to 160,000 in the Democratic primary. In 2018, it was 156,000 to 168,000, respectively.
Even though turnout was low in absolute terms, it was a slight improvement over 2018 (344,000 vs 324,000). About 27,000 more voters showed up for the Republican primary than in 2018 and about 8,000 fewer for the Democratic primary.
There was a significant shift in voters’ preference between mail-in and early voting. In 2018, 47,000 voted by mail and 132,000 voted early. This year, the mail-in ballot plummeted by over 60% to only 18,000, lower than any of the previous four primaries. However, early voting more than made up the difference, increasing by 35% (146,000→178,000, +46,000).
The Republicans eschewed mail-in voting more than Democrats. In 2018, both parties had just over 20,000 mail-in votes but those fell by 75% in the Republican primary and over 50% in the Democratic primary. Some of the decline was undoubtedly due to the confusion over ID requirements for a mail-in ballot. But it is also clear that some Republican voters have become deeply suspicious of voting by mail.
Of course, what we do not know is whether the voters who were put off by the ID requirements skipped voting entirely or simply opted to vote early. Given the large increase in early voting, especially among Republicans, it appears it was mostly the latter.
The resurgence of voting in the Republican primary is an encouraging sign for Republicans for the fall, but certainly no guarantee of victory. Turnout in primaries is to some degree driven by marquee races. On the Republican side this time there was a highly contested Attorney General’s race and a spirited contest to take on Lina Hidalgo in the fall. Both drew large fields of well-funded candidates and got substantial media attention. By comparison, there was little interest in the Democratic races. O’Rourke’s nomination was a foregone conclusion and the Lt. Governor and Attorney General races on that side of the aisle never drew much attention.
There was, however, some very unusual results in the Democratic primary. Eleven incumbent judges were outright defeated in the primary and one is headed for a runoff badly trailing his opponent. This is truly unprecedented. Some analysts have sought to explain the unusual results as a backlash against judges releasing violent criminal on bond. However, three of the defeated judges held civil benches.
Rather it seems that actually race was the decisive factor. All eleven of the ousted judges were white and were defeated by a minority candidate (nine African-Americans and two Latinas). The only two white incumbent judges were re-elected, Chris Morton and Hilary Unger. Morton faced a Latino opponent and Unger a white one.
The fact minority candidates won 11 out of 12 judicial races where they were competing with a white candidate underscores the degree to which the Democratic primary in Harris County has come to be dominated by minority, and especially African-American, voters.