El Paso’s Voter Turnout Conundrum


Paso (TX) is geographically unique. The city is wedged directly between Mexico and New Mexico; its a contiguous foundation that creates the second largest bi-national metropolitan area along the US-Mexico Border. This area is a desert island, tucked away from other large cities. Albuquerque (NM) is 266 miles out from El Paso. El Paso’s nearest big Texas neighbor is San Antonio — a mere 511 miles away. When “West Texas” is mentioned in discussion or print, towns like Abilene, Odessa, and Midland come to mind. El Paso is simply overlooked or forgotten, perhaps too far West to be mentioned in the same breath. Texas is substantially large, boasting 254 counties. (Folks who don’t live in Texas can’t quite fathom the vast size of the state.) Although it’s home to millions of eligible voters, there’s a glaring issue with its turnout.

Beto O’Rourke has visited every single Texas county in his bid to unseat US Senator Ted Cruz. Election day is fewer than 75 days away, and polls show a close race. In July, the press confirmed it the most expensive Senate race in the nation. With a contest this dramatic, the eyes of Texas could descend upon O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso come election night 2018 — for only El Paso and Hudspeth Counties are the 2/254 counties in a different time zone. The polls close an hour later than the rest of the state, meaning that the Senate seat may possibly rest in the decision of Texas’ furthest Western city.

Political forecasts are pointing toward a democratic re-claiming of the US House of Representatives. The “Blue Wave,” as it has been dubbed, is a promising prospect for democrats nationwide. Liberals are competing, and winning, in places once thought to be republican strongholds. Look no further than the Doug Jones victory in Alabama, the Conor Lamb win in Pennsylvania, and the plus forty flipped seats in state legislatures. Of the 35 US Senate seats on the ballots ahead, Ted Cruz is facing a credible challenge from Congressman O’Rourke. Although the recent momentum and swell of money has sided with O’Rourke, Cruz’s reelection is still likely — barring a huge turnout of Texas democrats.

Hudspeth County’s population is just over 3,000 people. In 2016, the county only held 1,840 registered voters — of which 47% partook in that year’s election. El Paso County is home to many more people, having a population over 830,000. The county now holds over 449,000 registered voters. It’s an impressive number no doubt, but perhaps what is more impressive is the county’s notoriously low voter turnout. The exception: The 2016 election, just over half of all eligible voters in El Paso County cast ballots.

In the 2017 June runoff election, less than 32,000 people voted. It was a turnout of 8.58%. The city of El Paso elected a mayor, Dee Margo, with these numbers. An earlier study conducted by Portland State University revealed that the median age of the El Paso voter is 59. “In El Paso, 30% of registered voters over the age of 65 voted, as compared to 4% of registered voters aged 18–34 years.”

In the 2018 March primary, the last time O’Rourke and Cruz were on the ballot in El Paso County, there were 67,942 ballots cast. That was a turnout of 15.45%. Although it was a preliminary election and one that favored O’Rourke in the democratic field, he only secured 38,227 more votes than Senator Cruz in El Paso County. This begs the question: What does under-performing look like in your hometown? In the primary, statewide, the votes favored Cruz over O’Rourke by a difference of 676,126 votes. This difference alone was greater than O’Rourke’s total statewide vote tally. Furthermore, the primary runoff in May (the most recent election) showed even more abysmal numbers in El Paso County . On this occasion, only 23,878 ballots were cast, and that translates into a turnout of 5.39%.

Veronica Escobar, former EP County Judge, is poised to win Beto O’Rourke’s seat in Congress — which would make her the first female to represent Texas’ 16th Congressional District and possibly one of the first two Texas Latinas in the Capitol. Escobar responded to the low voter turnout numbers in the recent elections by saying: “A major factor in turnout in the 2018 runoff was lack of aggressive campaigning by the candidates. There was very little media coverage of it as well. If voters don’t have repeated reminders, whether through direct mail from candidates or canvassing by the campaign, or through focused media coverage, then it’s too easy for them to forget there’s a runoff.” Ahead of the November midterms, Escobar is fervently aiming for higher democratic voter turnout, consciously aware of White House policies and her campaign’s personal opportunity to rebuke regressive ideologies. “With all the hateful rhetoric and the politics of cruelty coming from Donald Trump and his enablers, we must increase turnout to send a powerful message that the politics of fear and intimidation are unacceptable.”

Although O’Rourke has visited all of Texas’ counties and is closing the gaps in the polls, unseating Senator Cruz is no small task. Enthusiasm is one thing; results are another. Texas republican voters outvoted democrats in the 2018 primaries. In four Texas counties, no one voted in the democratic runoff primaries. Still, the state’s overall turnout is less than stellar, despite being home to over 15 million registered voters. Texas ranks 44th out of the 50 states, and D.C., in voter registration. The state ranked 47th out of 51 for turnout during the 2016 election.

The last time Texas democrats won statewide offices was in 1994. The last democratic senator from the Lone Star State was Bob Krueger, who was appointed to the office in 1993. Technically, the last democratic candidate elected to the US Senate from Texas was Lloyd Bentsen. He was elected in 1970, having defeated George H. W. Bush in the race.

Governor Abbott is seeking reelection in Texas and reelection usually favors the incumbent. Abbott’s net positive approval numbers will serve as a boon to other republicans on the statewide ballot.

With the wind behind their sails, energetic O’Rourke supporters are claiming that they have a real shot to upset Ted Cruz. Iliana Holguin, El Paso Democratic County Chair, remarks, “I’ve spoken to some other county chairs in more rural parts of the state and they’ve told me that they’ll organize an event for Beto and expect 50 people and get 150 people.” Before Beto O’Rourke’s grassroots movement captured the optimism of Texas democrats, there was Wendy Davis. The former state senator ran for governor in 2014, riding a wave of energy following her historic filibuster in the Texas Senate. She lost the gubernatorial race by twenty points. Turnout, of course, was less than amazing.

Ted Cruz won his Senate bid in 2012 against democratic candidate Paul Sadler by a margin of 16 points. Polls are showing a much tighter race this go-around. Cruz has undoubtedly felt the pressure, having released multiple attack ads against Congressman O’Rourke. Senator Cruz will also host a rally in the near future with President Trump by his side.

O’Rourke will have to pull in a glut of votes in the liberal pockets of the state to best the red land, the remainder of Texas’ conservative counties. A promising fact for O’Rourke supporters is noticing that the longer the race stretches, the closer the race gets. El Paso, one of the largest cities in the state, holds a unique chance to send one of their own to the Senate. However, the low voter turnout in the county may discount any benefit of claiming home field advantage. Holguin remains resolute and optimistic. Does O’Rourke have a real chance? She emphatically, simply answers, “Yes, definitely.” Veronica Escobar echoes the confidence by claiming, “Beto will win in November, and it will be because the border came together to make it happen.” Early voting starts on October 22nd and election day is November 6th.

Hugo is a writer of culture, politics, humor, and fiction. Follow him on Twitter (@hugosaysgo) for thoughts and recommended reading, and on Instagram (@hugosnaps) for photography.

Freelance writer. Athlete. Texan. I consume a lot of news and my secretary looks a lot like me, but with glasses on. Email: hugoarrcontact@gmail.com

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