When would-be voters drove into the parking lot of the Charles Griffin Subcourthouse, two warring sides greeted them: Democrat supporters on the right, and Republican supporters on the left.
It’s common to see groups supporting candidates or parties holding signs outside polling places. On Nov. 3, tensions rose when supporters of Taylor Mondick, a Republican running in House District 95, and State Rep. Nicole Collier, Democratic incumbent, clashed outside the subcourthouse.
The two groups got into a verbal altercation when Mondick supporters arrived outside of the subcourthouse. Expletives were exchanged, speakers stood toe-to-toe, and tensions rose until a police officer stationed inside the polling place came out to defuse the situation.
“You got candidates saying false stuff,” resident and Democrat supporter Cliff Sparks said of his argument with Mondick supporters, one of whom held a sign that said Collier was keeping constituents poor.
Italia De La Cruz, a Mondick supporter present at the polling station, said she was called a “Trumper, a f—– troll. That’s how bad we want change, though. I’m not going to let anyone stop me.”
The confrontation reflects rising political polarization in Texas, which has coincided with dwindling voter turnout on both sides of the aisle.
This year, Tarrant County hit its lowest early voting turnout since the 2014 midterm election. After record-breaking turnout across Texas in the 2018 midterm election — including in Tarrant County, where 469,619 early votes were recorded — both Republicans and Democrats entered the race expecting a similar trend this cycle. Instead, their big expectations have been met with small numbers.
Over 1.2 million Tarrant County residents are registered to vote, roughly 85% of the voting age population. But after the 12-day early voting period, Tarrant County had recorded only 410,051 early votes, including returned mail-in ballots. That’s around 32% of registered voters.
The situation in Tarrant County is reflected statewide. Reporting from the Texas Tribune shows a significant gap in early voting across Texas’ top 30 counties with the most registered voters compared with the 2018 midterm election.
“We are having big changes in how people vote,” Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Allison Campolo said. “So Senate Bill 1 and the way it affected mail-in voting and the way it affected early voting … These things have really affected how many people are going to early voting and how many people are going to mail-in vote, which really obviously affects our numbers leading up to Election Day.”
Tarrant County Republican Party Chair Rick Barnes said he thought most of the lowered turnout could be attributed to Democratic voters rather than Republicans and expressed confidence that his party’s candidates will end up victorious regardless.
“Frankly, if you don’t have candidates that are exciting to get out and support, you don’t go to vote,” he said. “That’s part of the challenge that (Democrats) are facing.”
In Tarrant County, some voters who are traditionally party loyalists are splitting their ballots. Jessica Brazil, 37, said she voted for Greg Abbott for governor but decided to split the ticket further down the ballot, voting for local Democrat candidates running for criminal justice offices.
“We need less criminalization,” Brazil said. “There is police overreach in Fort Worth.”
Blair Hancock, 31, said he chose to vote only on races he had specific information on.
“I try to avoid down-ballot voting by party, because it doesn’t encourage good research and politics,” he said.
Voters like Brazil and Hancock complicate analysis of early voting trends. Analysts from both parties rely on looking at which party primary voters participate in to determine how they’re likely to vote in the General Election. Derek Ryan, a Republican political consultant, estimated 43% of statewide early votes came from Republican voters, compared with 31% from Democrat voters and 27% from voters with no primary election history. Ryan’s analysis found a lower percentage of early voters from both parties compared with the 2018 midterm election.
Participation in Tarrant County’s primary election was also low this year, outgoing County Judge Glen Whitley said. That means only a tiny sliver of residents picked candidates on November’s ballot, Whitley said in his final state of the county address.
Republican turnout in Tarrant County early voting can be difficult to evaluate. A group of Tarrant County lawyers and activists belonging to a group called Tarrant County Election Integrity have urged conservative voters to wait to vote until Election Day Nov. 8. Tarrant County Election Integrity, in particular, has pushed for a switch to a single day of voting and doing away with early voting altogether. The claim that early voting makes fraud easier was popularized by former President Donald Trump and has been refuted by multiple local and federal officials.
Several residents in Fort Worth reported receiving letters from someone claiming to investigate election integrity. The letters include the voter’s name, address, date of voting and voting location. The letter’s writer states that “there are an unusually high number of people that live in our neighborhood, traveling to the Stop 6 area to vote when there are many early voting sites between here and there,” and asked voters to confirm if the information in the letter was correct.
The Tarrant County Elections Office responded in a thread on Twitter, writing in part that “During early voting (and in our county also on Election Day), voters have the choice to vote at ANY location open in the County. Choosing a location far from your home DOES NOT indicate an “anomaly.” It just means it was convenient for the voter.”
The Tarrant County Republican Party does not take a stance on whether voting early or on Election Day is preferable, Barnes said.
“We know there’s going to be a big spike (on Election Day) because there’s a group out there who still believes, based on their concerns, that you don’t want to vote early on Election Day, and they push that narrative,” he said. “Of course, we don’t care when they go to vote as long as they vote. We know there’ll be a turnout on Tuesday of people that have been waiting intentionally and those groups will definitely be voting on our side of the ticket.”
The Tarrant Democratic Party, in contrast to the Tarrant County Election Integrity group, encourages residents to vote early.
“If you make a plan to vote on a Monday and it doesn’t work out for some reason, then you can come back on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,” Campolo said. “So you have backups if something doesn’t work out for any reason. Whereas if you wait till Election Day, you’re really putting yourself in a corner and it’s much harder to go back later or fix your schedule.”
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Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter.