When the March 1 presidential primary elections finally arrive in Texas, hundreds of thousands of voters — maybe even half of the Texans who plan to turn out — may have already cast their ballots.
During the past three presidential elections alone, more than 2 million voters headed to the polls early in Texas, state records show.
“This is definitely the trend here,” said Frank Phillips, Tarrant County’s elections administrator. “Mid to high 60 percent of people who vote in Tarrant County vote before election day.
Texas is one of 37 states, along with the District of Columbia, that lets voters cast ballots early, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Nearly 30 years ago, state lawmakers changed the early voting system that required Texans to provide a “valid excuse” to vote early.
They loosened up the rules to let voters cast early ballots just because they wanted to vote before election day.
“Some people enjoy and celebrate the act of voting,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “Other people … vote early.
“In Texas, because our voter turnout is so pitifully low overall, we need to make voting as easy as possible.”
Texans may vote early between Feb. 16 and 26.
Voters also may send in ballots by mail if they will be out of town on election day and during early voting, are sick or disabled, are 65 or older, or locked up in jail but eligible to vote.
“I think Texans are becoming more aware of the convenience of early voting,” said Alicia Pierce, a spokeswoman with the Texas secretary of state’s office. “One of the great things about early voting is you can vote anywhere in your county.
“It’s definitely more convenient, and it takes the stress off of election day because you’re not rushing to get to one site and you’re not worried about lines,” she said. “It’s definitely an option we encourage voters to take advantage of.”
The deadline to register to vote in the March 1 primary is Feb. 1.
Mail it in?
The 2008 presidential election remains the standout in Texas, drawing a record number of early voters to the polls — 1.1 million, or more than 15 percent — in the state’s 15 largest counties.
In 2012, more than 550,000 voters, or 6.87 percent, of voters in those counties voted before Election Day, and 272,722 voters, or 3.6 percent, cast early votes in those counties in 2004, state records show.
Texans who vote early, just as those who vote on election day, must show their photo ID when casting their ballot in person.
Part of the early turnout growth in Texas is due to more voters asking for mail-in ballots.
Phillips said the rise in requests for mail-in ballots is partially due to candidates reaching out to Texans 65 and older, generally sending them pre-filled-out forms asking them for a ballot that they just have to sign and drop in the mail.
But now, voters also may ask for a full year’s worth of ballots, rather than asking for only a ballot for the next election, he said.
In 2012, 63,981 ballots were mailed in early statewide, including 8,275 in Tarrant County, compared with 48,250 statewide and 5,144 in Tarrant County in 2008 and nearly 27,000 statewide and 2,539 in Tarrant County in 2004, records show.
The goal of these ballots primarily is to make sure voters who can’t make it aren’t cut out of the electoral process, Phillips said.
So far, about 1,000 requests for ballots have been sent in, he said.
“This is a convenience for voters,” Jillson said.
The question of which party benefits from early voting is just that — a question.
Democrats say it helps Republicans; Republicans say it’s the other way around.
“Early voting doesn’t necessarily help any one party at this point,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, an associate political science professor at the University of Houston.
But he said many early voters share certain characteristics.
“Voters who vote early are typically older, more affluent, and are long-term homeowners,” Rottinghaus said. “Younger voters are less likely to vote early partially because they are less likely to vote anyway.
“Racial minorities are also less likely to vote early in part because of the distant location of polling places,” he said. “Women are also more likely to vote early.”
Tarrant County generally ranks in the top five Texas counties for early turnout, state records show.
“The counties that have not embraced early voting are heavily Hispanic, perhaps due to lack of competition in these heavily Democratic areas,” Rottinghaus said. “Republican counties, especially suburban ones, have spiked in early voting numbers.”
In time, more and more voters will decide that casting votes early is the way to go.
It “gives voters flexibility about when and where to vote,” Rottinghaus said. “As voters become more familiar with it, and adopt it as part of their voting routine, it will catch on even more.”
Key Election Dates
Feb. 1 — Last day to register to vote in the March 1 primary or to update any voter information.
Feb. 16 — Early voting for March 1 primary starts.
Feb. 19 — Last day to apply for ballot by mail.
Feb. 26 — Last day to vote early in March 1 primary.
March 1 — Primary election day. Polls are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Also last day to receive any ballots in the mail.)
Source: Texas Secretary of State’s Office, Tarrant County Elections Office
Am I registered to vote? Go online to find out or call the Tarrant County Elections Office at 817-831-8683.
What do I need to vote early or on election day? Voters need to present one of seven approved forms of ID: A driver’s license, Texas ID card, Texas personal identification card, Texas license to carry a handgun, U.S. military ID card that contains a photo, U.S. citizenship certificate that contains a photo or U.S. passport.
Who can vote early? Any registered voter.
Does the photo ID requirement apply to me if I’m voting by mail? No
Who can vote by mail? Texas voters who are over 65, disabled and in jail but not convicted of a felony may ask for a mail-in ballot, as well as voters who will be out of town during the early voting period and on election day. The deadline to apply for a ballot by mail is Feb. 19.
How do I ask for a mail-in ballot? Applicants may fill out an official form or write a letter asking for the ballot that includes their name, address, reason for requesting a ballot, address to which the ballot should be mailed and party preference for the correct primary ballot. It should be signed by the applicant. Local voters may return mail-in ballot applications by fax, by email or in person.
Where do I send the mail-in ballot application? Mailing address Tarrant County Elections, Box 961011, Fort Worth, TX 76161-0011; Express Courier Delivery: Tarrant County Elections, 2700 Premier St., Fort Worth, TX 76111-3011; Fax: 817-831-6118; Email: email@example.com.
When are mail-in ballots due? These ballots must be returned to the elections office by election day, March 1, to be counted.
Source: Tarrant County Elections Office, Texas Secretary of State’s Office