Early voting ticks up in 2018, surges among Democrats

Early voting ticked up among Smith County voters for the March primary, and about half of the increase came from people casting ballots for Democrats.

A total of 12,926 early ballots were cast in Smith County, according to the county’s elections division. By party, there were 10,994 ballots cast for Republicans and 1,932 cast for Democrats.

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Overall, the numbers represent a 9.5 percent increase in early voting overall as compared with 2014, the last time there was a primary election for local and statewide offices but no candidate for president.

By party, the 2018 early voting numbers represent a 5.6 percent increase for Republicans, who cast 10,409 early ballots in 2014, and a 38.5 percent increase for Democrats, who cast 1,395 early ballots in 2014.

Early voting lasted approximately two weeks, from Feb. 20 through Friday. Polling places were open in five locations in Tyler, Lindale, Whitehouse and Noonday. The primary election is Tuesday.

Mark Owens, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Tyler, said much of the increase in early voters in 2018 could be attributed to an increasing population in Smith County.

The number of registered voters in Smith County is 131,007 in the 2018 primary, a 5.8 percent increase over the 123,867 registered voters at the time of the 2014 primary, according to Owens.

Owens called the early voting turnout “just on par for a growing area.” However, he credited Democrats for having an impact on the increase in early voters in conservative Smith County.

In raw numbers, 1,122 more Smith County residents voted in 2018 over 2014. Republicans accounted for 585 of those ballots, and Democrats accounted for 537 of them.

“To the Democrats’ credit, the voter mobilization efforts are stronger in the fact that this isn’t a primary with as many leading elections at the top of the ticket, so they would see it, from their perspective, of people wanting to vote for (their candidates),” Owens said.

“A really big part of it is candidates coming out to East Texas to listen and encouraging people to go vote,” Owens said. “I think if you look at the numbers, that means something to people.”

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Michael Tolbert, the chairman of the Smith County Democratic Party, credited the increased turnout in his party to what he called people who are “starting to see the real-world implications of the poor leadership that the Republicans have stuck us with.”

“We’ve been doing some phone-banking,” Tolbert said. “Our Democratic club is much more active (than in 2014). There are several activist groups who are doing just a variety of things.”

Additionally, Tolbert said a big portion of the turnout came from excitement over U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, who is running for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. He is attempting to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in the general election on Nov. 6.

Democrats also have a competitive primary for Congress between Brent Beal and Shirley McKellar, who are running for the Democratic nomination to challenge incumbent U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler.

In local elections, the most competitive race on the Democratic ballot is for Precinct 4 Smith County Commissioner, where former Tyler City Council member Donald Ray Sanders is attempting to unseat incumbent JoAnn Hampton.

Brent Thompson, chairman of the Smith County Republican Party, said he was encouraged by the early voting numbers. “This is a nonpresidential year, and any increase at all in a nonpresidential year is encouraging,” Thompson said.

“I think a lot of that, of course, has been driven by our local races and as the county chairman here I couldn’t be more excited about the fact that we have such competitive races here,” Thompson said.

Incumbent Republicans for statewide office also are facing challengers on the primary ballot. Among them, Cruz is facing four primary opponents, including Stefano de Stefano, and Gohmert is facing Anthony Culler and Roshin Rowjee.

At the local level, some of the Republican names on the ballot include Alicia Barkley and Jacob Putman, who are running for Smith County district attorney; and Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, who is defending his seat against former lawmaker Ted Kamel.

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“Competition is always healthy,” Thompson said. “It’s not always easy to deal with if you’re the candidates, of course, who are facing these hard-fought races, but in the end we plan to come out united.”

“We’re a very important county in the state for the Republican Party, and our goal is to maintain that foundational place that we have in keeping Texas red,” he said. “That’s kind of our job as Republican officials, as party officials.”