AUSTIN, Texas — Texans have already cast more ballots in the presidential election than they did during all of 2016, an unprecedented surge of early voting in a state that was once the country's most reliably Republican, but may now be drifting toward battleground status.
More than 9 million ballots have been cast as of Friday morning in the nation's second most-populous state, exceeding the 8,969,226 cast in 2016, according to an Associated Press tally of early votes from data provided by Texas officials.
Texas is the first state to hit the milestone. This year's numbers were aided by Democratic activists challenging in court for, and winning, the right to extend early voting by one week amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Texas also offers only limited vote-by-mail options when compared to the rest of the country, meaning casting in-person, early ballots is the primary way to vote for people who don't want to line up and do so on Election Day.
Voters in Texas do not register by party affiliation, so no one can be sure until the ballots are counted whether one party or the other will benefit from the surge in turnout.
Still, the fact that the state exceeded its entire vote total for the past presidential cycle with hours still to go in its early voting period which ends Friday, and before millions more people are likely to vote on Election Day, hints at a potential electoral sea change.
For Democrats, anything different is likely positive. The party hasn't won a state office in Texas since 1994 — the nation's longest political losing streak — nor seen one of its presidential nominees carry the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976. The party now believes it has a chance to seize control of the state House, flip as many as six congressional seats and a Senate seat.
President Donald Trump carried Texas against Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a comfortable 9 points, even though that was the smallest margin since Republican Bob Dole beat Democratic President Bill Clinton by 5 points in 1996.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's campaign has for months insisted that Texas, with its 38 electoral votes, is among the traditionally conservative states it is looking to flip — though it has long been more bullish on Arizona and North Carolina. Biden's running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, is visiting Fort Worth, Houston and the U.S.-Mexico border town of McAllen on Friday, just four days before Election Day, using precious campaign time on the state far later than any major national Democrat in decades.
The news may not be all positive for Democrats, however.
The spike in early voting is most apparent in suburban counties around Dallas and in areas outside Austin, especially those south toward San Antonio. One area that has not seen voting rise dramatically, however, is the Rio Grande Valley, where Harris will be. Its population is about 90% Mexican-American and it is among the state's youngest and fastest-growing areas.
In Hidalgo County, which includes McAllen, early voting has only increased by about 1% compared to 2016, despite the extra week to do so — far below the at least 15% increase in nearly every other large Texas county.
Not turning out voters there — especially when the rest of the state is shattering records — could spell trouble for Biden as well as Democratic challenger MJ Hegar, who is trying to topple long-serving Republican Sen. John Cornyn. The area is solidly Democratic, even if many of its Latino voters tend to be slightly more conservative than many of their counterparts in other parts of Texas or the country.
Its also been among the hardest hit areas in the nation by the coronavirus and has seen new cases soar in recent weeks as they have in many parts of the country.
"They were forced to place bodies in refrigerated FEMA trailers because they ran out of room in the morgues and the funeral homes," said Beto O'Rourke, a former congressman and Democratic presidential candidate who came within 3 percentage points of upsetting Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 — and might have closed that gap had he turned out more Hispanic people in the Rio Grande Valley.
"This part of Texas has borne witness to the cruelty of the Trump administration and the incompetence of his leadership," O'Rourke added.
Recent polls have shown Biden topping Trump among Latinos in places like Florida, but trailing the level of support Clinton received from the community in 2016. The former vice president was in Florida on Thursday and noted that 20% of the nation's population is now Hispanic.
"It's our future and we should invest in the future," Biden told reporters while campaigning in Fort Lauderdale. "The better the community does, the better the country does."