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Texas Democrats came away from Beto O’Rourke’s surprisingly narrow 2018 defeat to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz with a simple plan: register to vote the millions of nonvoting Texans that demographics suggest lean Democrat and electoral victories will follow.

Harris County, the biggest, bluest population center in the state filled with unregistered potential voters, would be the linchpin of that strategy.

Recent statewide defeats and turnout percentages below the national average in Harris County and the state as a whole, however, indicate that game plan has not entirely panned out. 

The first part — registering voters — has worked. Since 2014, Texas’ population has grown by 3 million people. More than 3.5 million people have been added to the state’s voter rolls in that time. More than 500,000 of those new registrations came from Harris County.

The growing voter rolls only shrank the county’s overall turnout percentage, however.

Fewer than one out of five registered voters in Harris County cast a ballot in last week’s elections, which featured an open mayoral seat in Houston and a host of state constitutional amendments, among other local races. Harris County’s turnout in the 2022 gubernatorial election was 9 percent points lower than in 2018.

Local political experts cited a lack of inspiring candidates and the nonpartisan nature of the race after a series of high stakes national elections as the reason for the low turnout in last week’s election.

The trend of low turnout in the county’s local elections is nothing new. Municipal elections in Harris County are held on odd years separate from national elections or elections for statewide office and regularly see turnout well below even-year elections.

Statewide, O’Rourke’s return to the top of the ticket in a 2022 challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott also saw depressed voter turnout.

Even in 2020, which saw Texas’ highest turnout percentage this century and a record number of raw votes, Texas still found itself in the bottom handful of states for turnout.

“The problem isn’t just registration, the problem is turnout of registered voters,” said Mike Doyle, chair of the Harris County Democratic Party.

Doyle said he found the low turnout last week concerning heading into 2024, but not insurmountable.

Republicans and Democrats in Harris County say they value efforts to increase voter registration ahead of 2024’s presidential election, but Democrats take a broader approach, said Jeronimo Cortina, an associate professor of political science at the University of Houston.

The GOP strategy hinges on reaching out to voters that already reliably vote Republican, Harris County Republican Party Chair Cindy Siegel said.

Democrats, on the other hand, still are seeking to expand their base and turn out less reliable voters.

Doyle, however, said the party hopes to be smarter with its outreach this time around.

“Getting folks registered, great,” Doyle said. “That’s always part of our strategy, but if we already have a registered voter that’s not turning out and we know when they turn out they’re going to vote Democratic more likely than not, that’s an easier target.”

Those efforts will be focused in state House of Representatives districts controlled by Democrats, Doyle said.

Simply put, the likelihood of success moving an unregistered nonvoter to register to vote, then show up on Election Day and vote for a party’s priorities is far lower than targeting likely voters in a state without much national investment, Cortina said.

“If you’re a political campaign and you have a limited budget … do you want to invest resources into people where their likelihood to turn out to vote isn’t great? The answer is no, from a pure return on investment perspective,” Cortina said.

Republicans, on the other hand, hope to continue their more narrow strategy of registering people who recently moved into the state that have a history of voting for GOP candidates elsewhere, while also attempting to make the party younger by doing outreach on high school and college campuses, Harris County Republican Party Chair Cindy Siegel said.

The GOP’s base in Harris County and in Texas generally is older, wealthier and votes more consistently than the Democratic Party’s. That means the Republican strategy is easier to pull off than the Democrats’, Siegel said.

“Our base is very good at turning out,” she said.

Democrats have swept recent elections in the county. However, maintaining a foothold in the urban area is crucial because it serves as a “firewall” against the county’s massive population causing the entire state to flip Democratic, Siegel said.

Harris County’s demographics suggest it should be a solidly Democratic county, but low voter turnout means election results show a county shaded a lighter color of blue than expected, Cortina said. He agreed with Siegel’s assessment that it is easier for Republicans to identify, register and turn out likely voters than Democrats because they have a far longer history of investing in outreach in the state.

“You have to have significant presence and significant investment from the (Democratic National Committee) in the state or the county. If you don’t have that, you can’t expect the Harris County Democratic Party to do all the heavy lifting if they don’t have the resources,” Cortina said.

That investment from national Democrats has yet to arrive consistently, Cortina said.

Statewide, Democrats hope to overcome a disadvantage in funding and campaign infrastructure by beginning their statewide strategy for 2024 earlier than ever, said Monique Alcala, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.

The state Democratic Party announced its “Texas Blueprint” strategy on Oct. 24, a campaign focused on coordinating the party’s statewide and grass-roots efforts with other progressive organizations operating in the state.

By ensuring groups working toward the same goal of electing liberal candidates are coordinated at the state level, Alcala said she thinks it will allow Democrats to get a better return from the resources at their disposal despite a lack of serious national Democratic investment.

Turning Texas blue is not as daunting as many outsiders believe, Alcala said. Eighty-five percent of Texas’ voting age population lives in just 10 counties, allowing Democrats to be more targeted with their outreach, she said.

“The perception without digging into the data is that it’s going to be a lot of money. It is going to be a lot of money, but I think it’s over exaggerated,” Alcala said.

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Paul Cobler covers politics for the Abdelraoufsinno. Paul returns to Texas after covering city hall for The Advocate in Baton Rouge. During two-and-a-half years at the newspaper, he spearheaded local accountability...