Hispanic Voting May Be Higher Than We Thought in Harris County


The number of Hispanic voters in Harris County increased an estimated 39 percent in 2016. And one researcher says Hispanic turnout may actually be even higher than previously thought.

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The number of Hispanic voters in Harris County increased an estimated 39 percent in 2016. And one researcher says Hispanic turnout may actually be even higher than previously thought.

Image via flickr/Dan Dickinson

Across Texas, researchers have been carefully following Hispanic voter activity for several election cycles, wondering each time whether this will be the vote in which the "sleeping giant" awakens.

The large 2016 Democratic victory in Harris County, home to Houston, was in part, credited to an increase in Hispanic voter turnout. Even down ticket races went blue in November's election.

Estimates based on Hispanic surnames and an unofficial Harris County roster of voters suggest a roughly 39 percent increase in the number of Hispanic voters from 2012 to 2016. And one researcher believes Hispanic voter turnout in Harris County may be even higher than most think.

Instead of relying only on Hispanic surnames -- a common method used by researchers studying turnout -- Houston Community College professor Max Beauregard added in voters with Hispanic middle names to the list. He surmised it might provide a more accurate count since it could include Hispanic women who married and took the last names of their non-Hispanic partners, or children who took their Hispanic parent's surname as their middle name but lack a Spanish last name themselves. "They're just as Hispanic as they ever were," Beauregard said. He applied that standard to voting history records from the county clerk, following the November election.

According to county voting totals, and the more conservative estimates of Hispanic voters from Héctor de Leon, the head of voter outreach for the county who has his own personal website where he publishes his analysis, Hispanic voters made up about 19 percent of the overall 2016 vote, an increase from 2012 when they made up around 15 percent of the vote. Article continues below graph.

Image via de Leon.

But when Beauregard included individuals with Hispanic middle names as well, he identified another 65,000 or so Hispanic voters. With that number, he found that Hispanic voters actually made up about 24 percent of total voters in the 2016 election. He's now studying past election data using the same name analysis.

The increase is significant, but, he said, Hispanic voters are still an underperforming voting group, relative to their population share in Harris County. They make up around 42 percent of the county's population, according to Census estimates.

"The Hispanic population is the sleeping giant," Beauregard said, "and if they rally and go to vote, they can change things significantly." Indeed, many credited the Democratic sweep in 2016, in part to the growth of the county's Hispanic population and voter turnout, but Beauregard said Hispanic voters in Harris County still haven't fully achieved their potential quantity.

That could be for a couple reasons, including the handling of a contentious voter ID law. A University of Houston poll conducted in October 2016 found that the majority of both Hispanic and African-American voters incorrectly believed they had to have a photo ID to vote in the November election. And Houston media reported several instances of poll workers incorrectly telling potential voters that ID was required to vote. Advocates say African-Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately impacted by voter ID laws, and confusion over the laws didn't help the situation.

Meanwhile, the Hispanic population also tends to be younger than the county's overall population, with a median age of 27.5 compared to the county's 32.8. Young voters don't vote at the same rate as older voters.

Still, de Leon has contested the "sleeping giant" hypothesis in his own work. "Eligibility factors like age and citizenship status make the 'giant' label improbable in the near future," he wrote in an analysis of 2015 voter data. But Beauregard's approach may show there are stronger numbers than once thought.

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