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Voter registration spikes in Texas's largest counties

It's evidence that an ambitious push by progressive groups to register new Texas voters, especially minorities, may be bearing fruit.
A bilingual sign stands outside a polling center at public library ahead of local elections on April 28, 2013 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty)
A bilingual sign stands outside a polling center at public library ahead of local elections on April 28, 2013 in Austin, Texas.

Since last year, progressive groups have been working aggressively to register new voters in Texas—part of a long-term plan to make the deep-red state competitive. Now, there’s evidence that their efforts are bearing fruit.

In Texas’s five largest counties—Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, and Travis—the number of people registered to vote has increased by over 2% since 2012, according to figures released by local election officials and examined this week by the Houston Chronicle. Over one third of Texans live in those counties, which encompass Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin.

Charles Kuffner, a prominent Texas progressive political blogger, took a closer look at the numbers, and found an increase of roughly 373,000 registered voters in those five counties between the last midterm elections in 2010 to today. That’s about 8% of the total number of Texans who voted in 2010.

Monday was the deadline to register in Texas.

At the forefront of the registration push has been Battleground Texas, which was launched last year by former Obama campaign veterans, and has become the de facto field arm of Democrat Wendy Davis’s campaign for governor.

"We're seeing an incredible momentum across Texas this year—for Wendy Davis and Democrats down the ticket,” said Erica Sackin, a spokeswoman for the group, in response to the new numbers. “People are volunteering for the first time in a while, or in some cases, for the first time in their lives—and that hard work is having an impact."


The registration spike didn’t quite keep up with population growth in those counties, which are booming. But compare the uptick since 2012 to what happened between the 2008 presidential election and the 2010 midterms: That time around, the Chronicle reported, registration actually dropped by 2.5% in the five counties, despite the growth in population.

It’s not just the state’s most populated counties that have seen registration increases, either. Hidalgo and Cameron counties in the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas saw increases since 2012 of 15,000 and 6,000 respectively, according to a local news report. The area has long had low rates of political participation, but was a focus of Battleground Texas’s campaign. According to Sackin, officials with both counties told Battleground volunteers that the group had registered more new voters than any previous effort they’d seen.

And the number of registered voters in the six counties that make up southeast Texas increasedfrom 2012 by 8,000, the Beaumont Enterprise reported.  

The figures aren’t broken down by race, but it’s likely that the new registrants are disproportionately Hispanic, who have been registered at a far lower rate than whites, and who tend to vote Democratic. In 2012, just 39% of eligible Hispanics voted, compared to 61% of whites.

“If Latinos and Hispanics in Texas came out to vote, we’d be talking about a completely different electorate in Texas,” Daniel Lucio, Battleground Texas’s deputy field director, told msnbc earlier this year.

The increase in registration occurred despite a concerted effort by Republicans—including Davis’s opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott—to make registration harder. In 2011, the state imposed the strictest voter registration rules in the country. Non-Texans are barred from registering voters; anyone registering voters must undergo training through the county; no one can register voters in counties other than the county where they were appointed; and all voter registration applications must be personally delivered, rather than mailed.

And in 2010, according to a recent Dallas Morning News report, Abbott’s office conducted an armed raid of Houston Votes, a group that was working to register low-income voters, accusing it of fraud. The probe closed a year later with no charges filed. But as a result of the publicity, the funding for Houston Votes dried up and it was forced to stop registering voters.

All that's in addition to Texas's strict voter ID law, which Abbott's office has zealously defended in court. A ruling from a federal judge is expected soon in the challenge to the ID measure.

Of course, registration numbers mean little if the new registrants don’t turn out to vote. We'll know more about that after November 4.