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Two key Texas counties — Democratic stronghold Harris and traditionally red Denton — are setting early voting records

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In the first few days of early voting in Texas, Harris County and Denton County are breaking records. Credit: Amna Ijaz/The Texas Tribune

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In the first few days of early voting in an unprecedented election year, two key Texas counties saw a rush of voters coming to the polls.

Houston’s Harris County has gotten state and national attention for its long lines and record breaking participation. But by the fourth day of early voting, it was North Texas’ Denton County — large swaths of which are rural — that had the largest increase in early voting, of Texas’ 10 largest counties, compared to 2016.

As of Friday, 27% of registered voters in Denton County had cast their ballots in the 2020 election — surpassing the county’s 2016 turnout of 18% on the fourth day. Both in-person and mail-in turnout increased compared with 2016 figures.

“It’s something that is nonpartisan,” said Mateo Granados, a 36-year-old Denton resident and a field organizer for the nonpartisan engagement group Move Texas. “It’s easy to point the finger at Trump or at whomever is president. I think people are looking at the system and they are complaining about the issues, like health care, education and navigating a pandemic.”

Harris County also saw a jump in turnout. By the fourth day of early voting in 2016, 16% of the county’s registered voters had participated. This year, turnout for the same period jumped to 21%.

Overall, 1,983,090 Texans have already cast ballots in the 10 largest counties, which is one-fifth of the registered voters for those areas. That’s 2.3 percentage points higher than 2016 for the four-day early voting period.

But it’s impossible to say what the early voting turnout so far will mean for the election, especially given the extraordinary nature of casting ballots during a global pandemic. With Gov. Greg Abbott’s blessing, voters have an extra six days of early voting to cast their ballots in hopes that the polls will be less crowded. But Texas is one of several states that has not expanded mail-in voting during the pandemic.

Democrats are banking on high turnout in the state’s cities and rapidly changing suburbs to help them gain control of the Texas House, flip multiple congressional seats and maybe even deliver the state’s 38 electoral votes to Joe Biden this year. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll showed President Donald Trump was 5 points ahead of Biden among Texas voters.

Denton County — home to the suburbs north of Dallas-Fort Worth, several rural towns and the University of North Texas — has long been a Republican stronghold. In 2016, it voted in favor of Trump by a 20 percentage point margin. But there are signs it might be trending more blue as some suburban voters have soured on Trump and the Republican Party. In 2018, Republican Ted Cruz defeated Democrat Beto O’Rourke by a narrower 8-point margin.

The county’s Democratic party sees this year’s early voting turnout as a continuation of the left’s inroads into suburban Texas.

“We have a lot of first time volunteers, people running for office or trying to help. We also have some Republicans that decided to help us,” said Angie Cadena, chair for the Denton County Democratic Party.

She attributes enthusiasm for the party to more Democrats running in down-ballot races than is typical in the typically red county — including in the race for county sheriff. The plethora of candidates are also being aided by a firmer party infrastructure.

“This is the first time that the state party has put a coordinated campaign that I know of and they are supporting the smaller county parties as well,” Cadena said.

That’s not to say the party will flip Denton County. Jayne Howell, chairman of the Denton County Repulican Party, said voters with previous GOP and Democratic primary voting histories are turning out in similar amounts.

Howell said that her party started working earlier than normal this year in Denton, doing phone banks and block walking and that this year issues like police funding have become key for their voters.

“And many conservatives are simply wanting to protect the freedoms Americans enjoy today,” Howell said.

Still, according to Howell’s data, almost half of the voters who voted as of Friday had no prior participation in primaries. She also said young voters are coming in large numbers, with around 9% of the votes in person casted by people under 29 years old.

While Denton County has seen the largest percentage point increase in early voter turnout, Harris, unsurprisingly, leads the state with the largest number of voters who have already cast ballots. That county has become solidly Democratic. As recently as 2014, it was considered a swing county. But O’Rourke defeated Cruz there by more than 16 percentage points in 2018.

Democrats were gleeful about the reports of long lines of early voters there this week.

“We can flip the State House. We can flip this Senate seat,” wrote DJ Ybarra, executive director of the Harris County Democratic Party in an email to supporters Thursday. “We can flip the White House. Harris County can and will lead the way into a bright new future where everyone has the chance to prosper.”

Disclosure: MOVE Texas and University of North Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.