In the month before the Nov. 8 elections, Toni Ramirez and Mara Ventura knocked on more than 100 doors to get El Pasoans to the polls.
Though the married couple volunteers on behalf of Democratic organizations, Ventura says their conversations with El Pasoans often center less on the issues or the candidates but more on a single question: What’s your plan to vote? “You have to have a plan,” said Ventura, a 36-year-old labor organizer.
While many she spoke with seemed excited to vote, most didn’t have a plan for where or when they would go, Ventura said, “and then suddenly, it’s election night and you have one hour left, and you’re not going to go. If you work full time, and you have a long commute, or you go to school, you have child care – like you really have to know.”
This election season, El Pasoans’ pace to the polls has been a complicated story. Although the early voting turnout of more than 102,000 trailed the record-shattering 2018 midterm election by almost 37,000 votes, it also was more than twice as high as any other midterm.
The complicated turnout story is true for women, who in recent years have made up a larger share of El Paso voters. About 22,000 fewer women cast early votes this year compared to 2018. Men’s votes fell by 15,000.
Still, compared to the 2014 midterm, the number of women voters this year was up by almost 35,000, while the number of men voters rose by 28,000.
The decline from 2018 is not unique to El Paso. Turnout has lagged throughout Texas, which historically has had some of the lowest voting rates in the country. But the last two election cycles also saw record-breaking turnout among Texas voters – El Pasoans included – and some expected the trend to continue.
Carol Wallace, president of the El Paso League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group that works to protect voting rights, was surprised to hear of this year’s early voting downturn compared to 2018 – especially with reports of high early voting in states like Georgia. “One of the worst things that Texans don’t do is (they don’t) vote,” she said, “and it seems like they’re living up to that tradition again. Unfortunately, that has ramifications.”
“It’s not just surprising,” she added. “It’s disappointing, too. I would think that women would want to be heard.”
Midterm elections tend to see lower voter engagement than in presidential years; some have also worried that Texas’ new restrictive voting law could be dampening voter enthusiasm.
Whatever the cause, Wallace said, “If we don’t get out there and vote, it’s going to be bad for us. Especially for women.”
For at least the last decade, women in El Paso have voted at higher rates than men – part of a national trend that began in the 1980s. That’s still true this election cycle, where women have comprised 53.7% of early voters even as they’re an estimated 50.4% of the county’s voting-eligible population.
But in elections since 2016, women have made up 55 to 56% of El Paso early voters. This year, that proportion shrank by nearly 2 points from 2018, when women cast 55.5% of early votes.
An El Paso Matters analysis of early voting trends showed that women were slow to go to the polls this year. In the first few days of early voting, more men than women cast ballots – a rare occurrence in El Paso. By the ninth day of early voting on Tuesday, women made up just over 52% of El Paso voters.
But in the final stretch of early voting, which ended Friday, more El Pasoans turned out, and women’s share of early voters grew: They made up 56% of the 35,000 ballots cast in the last three days of early voting. The 16,000 people who cast ballots the last day of early voting was also the second-highest daily early voting turnout in an El Paso midterm election, trailing only the first day of early voting in 2018.
A first-time voter’s view
Isabella Molina is registered to vote in nearby Sunland Park, N.M., but as a student at the University of Texas at El Paso, she’s still heavily invested in Texas’ elections. The economics major hopes to go into politics one day, and on Thursday morning, she skipped class to see gubernatorial hopeful Beto O’Rourke at a campaign rally near UTEP’s student union, where the Democratic candidate and El Paso native would also cast his vote. In at least that respect, Molina beat O’Rourke to the polls, arriving half an hour before the event was set to start.
“That makes me kind of sad to hear, honestly,” Molina said of the drop in female turnout. “I mean, women are amazing, and I think El Paso especially has a very strong community of women.”
At 19, this will be Molina’s first time at the ballot box. But even as she’s determined to vote, she and her female friends are fighting a sense of powerlessness provoked by the end of Roe v. Wade. “It seems like they’re making these decisions either way, without listening to how the public feels or to how women feel overall,” said Molina, who supports abortion rights. More than 80% of Texans say they want greater access to abortion than what Texas’ current laws allow.
Though Molina’s four closest female friends have registered to vote in El Paso, she said none have decided if they’ll cast their ballot. “My friends, it’s not that they don’t care. I think it’s just like, ‘OK, well, if I go out and vote will it really matter given recent events?’”
Early voting by El Pasoans under age 30 dropped by almost 10,000 votes compared to 2018, a decline of 47%, according to an El Paso Matters analysis of county election data. Young women made up 56% of their age cohort’s early voters – and that proportion hasn’t changed from 2018.
“We’re all kind of upset,” Molina said. “I think it’s a kind of boycotting.”
When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer, leaving abortion rights up to states, many predicted the decision would drive more women to vote in November’s midterm elections. A New York Times analysis found that in the weeks following the court’s decision, some states saw a surge in women signing up to vote. And in an October survey of likely voters, about six in 10 Texas women said abortion was very important to their vote in this year’s elections.
Speculation also ran high that the court’s decision could boost Democratic prospects in states like Texas that have banned and criminalized most abortions.
But supporters of abortion rights have also struggled to keep Texans’ attention on the issue.
“Democrats in this state have really been pushing the reversal of Roe v. Wade, as kind of this spark to get women voters engaged and certainly to vote. And so the fact that those numbers aren’t up is a little bit surprising,” said Richard Pineda, chair of UTEP’s Department of Communication. “And if I’m a Democrat looking at those numbers in the party organization, then I’m going to be a little bit freaked out, quite frankly.”
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, was aware of the lower turnout by women compared to 2018 but said she couldn’t yet explain it. “I still don’t have enough information to understand why women aren’t coming out in the numbers that we had hoped,” she said.
She said she has focused efforts during early voting on strengthening turnout among women after the first days of voting showed fewer women casting ballots.
“We’re posting some videos of women on social media, to try to make sure that we are reminding them how important this election is and how powerful their vote and their voice can and should be. So I remain optimistic and hopeful. But also I acknowledge the kind of work it’s going to take to make it happen.”
The Republican view
Some see El Paso’s lower women turnout as a sign that women’s political leanings in the region may be shifting – or confused, said Elizabeth Amy Hernandez at a Wednesday reelection rally for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Hernandez is opposed to abortion and at 25, has always voted Republican. But she said her female cousins, mother and aunt, while also opposing abortion, have until this year mostly leaned Democratic or independent. But with Democratic politicians campaigning against Texas’ near-total abortion ban, “they don’t know who to vote for,” said Hernandez, who is president of the Young Republicans of El Paso County. Among her relatives, she said, “I know a lot of them aren’t voting this year.”
“What I’ve heard is a lot of Democrats who have been lifelong Democratic voters are maybe not able to vote Republican just yet,” said Irene Armendariz-Jackson, the Republican candidate running against Escobar. “So they’re naturally not voting. We get that a lot: ‘I can’t vote Republican – yet.’”
Robbie Rosales, 51, was attending the Abbott rally with his two sons. Though he thought chances for Abbott would be tough in El Paso County, “whatever you believe in, you should vote,” he said. “That’s why we live in this great country.”
Neither Rosales nor his sons, 20-year-old Ryan and 17-year-old Robbie, were shocked by the lower turnout for early voting, but they didn’t expect it to last. By Election Day, Rosales said, voting would pick up. “El Paso, to me, it’s always kind of last minute, let’s get it done.”
Deciding to vote
From their door-knocking conversations, both Ventura and Ramirez heard common themes that were slowing El Pasoans to the polls: Some didn’t know what the voting dates were. Others felt unsure of who to vote for, or scared they’d make an uninformed decision.
And Ventura said they’ve heard others express sentiments similar to Molina’s: “What does my vote really do? At the end of the day, you know, politicians are gonna do what they want to do. I think people are maybe feeling just like, hopeless and powerless.”
They planned to continue knocking on doors as much as possible before Election Day. “It’s never too late to talk to someone about voting,” said Ramirez, a 36-year-old physician.
“We’ve seen that, and I’ve been motivated by that,” she added.
Gladys Rivera is a friend of Molina’s who until a few months ago had been pretty sure she wouldn’t vote. At 19, the UTEP nursing student doubted that government officials would care about a vote from someone like her – a young woman of color. But then her family began talking to her about voting.
“They kept telling me that my vote is valued,” Rivera said. She’s now “definitely leaning” toward voting, though she’s still figuring out her choice of candidates.
Asked about her plan for voting, Rivera said she wasn’t sure where or when she would vote – only that she planned to go vote with her friends. “That’s another reason I want to do it,” she said.