This article has been updated.
Though Bexar County has a record number of voters registered for the March 3 primary election, traffic at voting sites was slow during the first week of early voting.
Only 45,270 out of 1.13 million registered voters in Bexar County cast ballots in the first six days of early voting. That’s 4 percent of the county’s electorate, which is unusually low, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen said at a Monday news conference.
“It’s below numbers that we’re really used to,” she said. “I wish I could say we knew what was going on with this election. It’s not fitting any of our models, no matter what we look at.”
Though the numbers didn’t match Bexar County Elections’ projected turnout, statewide party officials seemed pleased with the number of votes so far. This year, the first six days of early voting exceeded 2016’s Democratic primary turnout by 82,572 in-person votes in the 15 most populous counties in Texas.
“Texas is changing and the energy seen from Texas Democrats in the first week of early voting will carry us in November,” Texas Democratic Party Executive Director Manny Garcia said in a news release. “Texas Democrats are ready to win up and down the ballot, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. This is our moment.”
Republican primary turnout was also up in the first six days. In Bexar County, 1,235 more people cast Republican ballots than in 2016. In the state’s 15 most populous counties, 13,684 more people cast Republican ballots this year than in 2016 in the first six days of early voting.
Bexar County’s low turnout is not for lack of presidential candidate attention. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders visited Cowboys Dance Hall in San Antonio on Saturday after the Nevada caucuses, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren will arrive Thursday for a town hall. As one of the 14 Super Tuesday states, Texas and California have the most delegates up for grabs.
Henry Flores, professor emeritus of political science at St. Mary’s University, said the sluggish turnout could be attributed to the lack of a true frontrunner among Democratic presidential candidates.
“It could be a lack of enthusiasm for the other candidates, beyond Bernie Sanders,” Flores said. “None of the other presidential candidates have really stepped forward and separated themselves away from the rest of them. Nobody’s got a compelling message and nobody has got a clear vision, so folks aren’t getting excited about them at the top level.”
Voters also could be waiting to see results from Saturday’s South Carolina primary, Flores said. Callanen isn’t sure if that’s the reason, however – early vote numbers did not spike on Sunday or Monday after Sanders posted a win Saturday in the Nevada caucuses. She also didn’t see people waiting to vote in the 2008 Democratic primary, which was also still “pretty wide open” halfway through early voting.
This year’s early voting period ends Friday.
The down-ballot races inspire similar apathy from both Democratic and Republican primary voters, Flores said. Besides the two contentious county party chair elections, none of the county races are spurring voters to the polls.
“It’s one of those elections I think isn’t exciting enough to generate enough interest,” he said. “I think you’ll probably see a higher turnout down the line in the general election, much higher. We’ll see.”
This year, Bexar County’s record-high number of registered voters aren’t translating into actual votes, Callanen said. She compared the current early voting numbers to previous years – this year, total early votes so far have exceeded 2016 and 2018, which is “not bad.” In 2018, only 28,857 people had cast ballots six days into early voting. But the Elections Department had expected a much higher turnout, she said.
“But then we go back and look at 2008, with our largest turnout, we’re 20 percent behind the people who had voted in 2008,” Callanen said. “And voter registration numbers were way down [in 2008], which means our numbers are a little wonky because that’s a way higher turnout [compared to today].”
Callanen said she’s not sure the early vote count will even make it to 150,000 ballots. The Elections Department had prepared 200,000 ballots for early voters, expecting a high turnout based on the high voter registration.
“We’d have to be really swamped this week to even reach those projections,” she said.
Flores said he has heard reports of voters making last-second decisions about whom to vote for at the polls. He himself went into the voting booth committed to one candidate, only to change his mind when actually presented with the election machine screen. Callanen said election officials have shared similar stories, where people have asked to change primary ballots from Republican to Democratic or vice versa after seeing the choices presented on the ballot.
“There are so many different candidates out there and a lot of people I think really just don’t understand the party and how the party enters in on the primary election,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of calls from people that are disappointed and are upset that our election officials are asking them which ballot they want, because they want to vote for people on both. So they’re prepared for November. But because it’s been two years, they’ve forgotten the primary process.”
In previous years, early voting usually picks up around the midway point, Callanen said, but numbers haven’t matched that trend yet. As this election is the second with vote centers in use, the Elections Department is prepared to receive a large number of voters on Super Tuesday, Callanen said. The department planned for 150,000 to 250,000 voters on election day.
“We do expect a huge turnout,” she said. “I think they’ll awaken at some point, maybe we’ll just have a large election day.”