As Texas’ extended early voting period ended Friday, Bexar County residents already have cast more early voting and mail-in ballots than the total number of votes cast in the 2016 presidential election.

The in-person early voting record was surpassed at the beginning of the week, according to Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen. More than 594,000 Bexar County voters cast their ballots early, far surpassing the 2016 early-voting record of 436,025. In the 2016 presidential election, a total of 598,691 people voted – early, by absentee ballot, and on Election Day.

The county increase reflects a general trend of more people voting in Texas during this election. As of Thursday, 9,009,850 Texans have voted via early voting and by mail, according to the Secretary of State’s office. In 2016, 8,969,226 cast ballots during the entire presidential election voting period. 

In Bexar County, the average daily voter turnout decreased in the third week of voting; while the first week averaged more than 34,000 voters each day, the second only averaged about 32,000 voters each day. The average from Monday through Thursday was fewer than than 30,000 voters each day.

Derek Ryan, a Republican voter data expert who tracks early voting trends, noted in a Thursday newsletter that about 4 million people who voted in previous general elections have not cast ballots yet in Texas.

Texas voters are not required to be registered with a certain political party and are not bound to vote in a certain party’s primary race, so Ryan broke down voters by their voting history in his daily early voting recaps. On Thursday, Ryan found that 32 percent of early voters in Bexar County have previously cast ballots only in general elections. Twenty-eight percent have voted only in Democratic primaries, 19.6 percent only in Republican primaries, and 3 percent have mixed primary histories. More than 17 percent of the votes cast in Bexar County were first-time voters, however.

As a historically Democratic county, Bexar County’s party breakdown numbers differed from the state’s. According to Ryan’s analysis, 29 percent of statewide early voters have voted only in Republican primaries and 22.9 percent in Democratic primaries, while about 3 percent of 2020 voters so far have a mixed primary history. Almost 29 percent have only ever voted in general elections and 16 percent have no Texas voting history.

Mail-in ballots will play a larger role than usual in Tuesday’s election. According to Callanen, the Elections Department sent out 119,658 absentee ballots and has received 83,222 completed ones back – a return rate of almost 70 percent with four days to go until Election Day. More than 15,000 people who requested absentee ballots have surrendered them at the polls because they chose to vote in person, Callanen said.

The last day of early voting opened slowly in Bexar County, with few lines at polling places in the morning. By 1 p.m., only 13,724 people had voted at the early voting sites across Bexar County, according to Callanen. But a late surge resulted in more than 40,000 ballots being cast on the final day of early voting.

Although San Antonio wasn’t on Kamala Harris’ Texas intinerary Friday, a Biden-Harris campaign bus made two stops at San Antonio polling places on its tour through Texas. The bus pulled up to the parking lot at Palo Alto College Performing Arts Center around 1 p.m., greeted by about 20 people with signs and T-shirts representing various Democratic campaigns. Former Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, who is in a tight race against Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Roy in House District 21, was one of the Biden campaign surrogates who spoke at Palo Alto College. She urged everyone to use the extended early voting hours in Bexar County to cast their ballots early.

A Biden-Harris campaign bus stops at the Palo Alto College voting center Friday on its tour through Texas. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“You never know what might happen on Election Day, something unanticipated may happen,” she said. “So take advantage of early voting – the last day of early voting is today.”

In accordance with a judge’s order, Bexar County Elections has added 18 polling places for Election Day on Tuesday, bringing Bexar County’s polling place total to 302 sites (find the full list of locations here). Under the vote center model, registered voters can cast a ballot at any site of their choice on Election Day. The most popular polling places will likely be the mega-centers and the 48 polling sites used during early voting, Callanen predicted Monday. Voters can check a wait-time tool built by a local tech company or join a local Facebook group to ask about certain polling place lines; both use crowd-sourced information.

Using historic turnout numbers and the increase in voter registration this year, Callanen predicted as many as 175,000 people will vote Tuesday on Election Day. She also reminded residents who have recently moved to Bexar County that if they are registered to vote in a different Texas county, they can still vote here with a limited ballot. A limited ballot allows an individual to vote in races that are not specific to Bexar County, such as statewide and national races.

“We’ve been doing 200 to 300 a day of the limited ballots,” she said at a Friday news conference. “We can see the interest of people who have just moved here if they hadn’t had a chance to register to vote.”

During the news conference, Callanen was confronted by deaf community members and advocates about the lack of interpreters at polling locations. There should be an in-person interpreter at San Antonio College and interpreters available via video at the Elections Department, Callanen said, but advocates contend those options are insufficient.

Voter Ramiro Rodriguez, who is deaf, told reporters through a sign language interpreter that he went to vote, but did not have access to an interpreter to assist him. Though poll workers directed him to the voting machine, Rodriguez could not read the ballot and required a sign language interpreter to help him vote, he said.

“I couldn’t understand it,” Rodriguez said through tears. “I voted and left because I was embarrassed.”

Kay Chiodo, who interpreted for Rodriguez and other deaf community members Friday, owns DeafLink, the company that Bexar County contracts with to provide video sign language interpretation for deaf voters. She told reporters Friday that putting the sign language interpretation on more devices at all polling places would not cost more money. She and representatives from No Barriers Communication, a San Antonio-based nonprofit advocacy group, shared stories of deaf voters who struggled to vote in Bexar County.

“[Rodriguez] doesn’t live near SAC or here, but he has to drive here to vote? No. We have a right,” said Yenter Tu, the national liaison for No Barriers Communication, where Chiodo serves as executive director. Chiodo also translated for Tu.

“Not all deaf are the same,” Tu said. “Reading, writing English, it varies. But I want to be clear that right now, [American Sign Language is] my primary language. It’s his. Writing notes to us, it’s not going to work. We need [interpreters]. It’s our language.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.