Nearly every voting-eligible Travis County resident ended up registering to vote in advance of the November 2016 elections, a local official declared.
Bruce Elfant, the county’s tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, told reporters: "Since the 2012 election, we’ve added over 80,000 registered voters, which helps us get over our 90 percent voter registration goal," set in January 2016.
As of Oct. 10, 2016, Elfant specified, his office had counted 713,871 registered voters, which he described as about 89.9 percent of the county’s citizens eligible to vote. At that time, Elfant said, another 11,000 applications had yet to be processed while more applications would come in before the voter registration deadline of Oct. 11.
Elfant says he started from federal research
Wondering about Elfant’s 90-percent-plus figure, we asked him to share his math.
By email, Elfant replied that he started from a U.S. Census Bureau estimate indicating that in 2015, the county was home to 778,077 citizens of voting age and then adjusted that figure to get to an updated estimate.
To reach the new estimate, Elfant said, he assumed the number of voting-age citizens in the county increased the same amount from 2015 to 2016 that it did, according to the bureau, from 2014 to 2015--or 18,551. But, he said, he reduced the 18,551 figure to cover just the stretch of 2016 preceding the mid-October registration deadline--getting an estimated gain of 16,232 voting-age citizens. Elfant said he then added the partial-year estimate to the bureau’s 2015 estimate of 778,077 voting-age citizens, reaching his October 2016 estimate of 794,309 voting-age citizens.
Finally, Elfant said, he divided the 713,871 people registered to vote in the county as of mid-October 2016 into his estimate of voting-age citizens, getting the 90 percent result.
When we heard back from Elfant a couple days later, he said the county’s tally of registered residents had reached 717,694, or 90.4 percent of voting-eligible residents by his analysis. On Oct. 14, 2016, Elfant emailed: "With at least 17,000 voter registrations still unprocessed, it is likely that 91% or even 92% are actually registered to vote but we won’t have a final tally for another week."
Census Bureau surveys
We sought to check the census bureau figures, hearing back from a bureau spokeswoman, Jewel Jordan, who pointed us to a bureau web page containing Elfant’s cited estimates of voting-age citizens in the county in 2014 and 2015.
Jordan said by email the bureau nationally estimates voting-age citizens through its American Community Survey, which in 2015 entailed interviews of residents of more than 2 million U.S. households. Each person’s survey included a request for each resident’s birth date and: "Is the person a citizen of the U.S.?"
Outside experts say estimates at play
To our inquiries, experts called Elfant’s methodology sound even though he depended on estimated counts of voting-age citizens.
Brian W. Smith, a St. Edward’s University political scientist, and James Henson of the University of Texas each pointed out by email that the bureau figures employed by Elfant to reflect citizens eligible to vote are estimates, not to-the-person counts.
Smith said that outside of the government’s decennial census, "population surveys are always estimates which include a margin of error. It is not a precise measure because the population is always changing because of deaths, migration, undercounts etc. For example, if Travis County grew at a much faster rate than the estimates, the results could be under 90%, but we cannot be certain," Smith said.
That said, Smith wrote, it’s reasonable to speculate that 90 percent of eligible residents has registered because some 86 percent appear to have done so in 2014 and that was a "low salience mid-year election." Smith reached the 86 percent figure by comparing the county’s 655,056 registered voters as of Nov. 4, 2014 to the bureau’s 2014 estimate of 759,526 county residents eligible to vote.
Smith elaborated: "The county had two years to increase the voter registered rate by 3.8% and a lot of events in their favor" such as competitive March 2016 party primaries including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz as a candidate; an antic general-election campaign period; and a surge in voters registering statewide. Days after Elfant spoke, Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos said a record 15 million-plus Texas citizens had registered to vote--or 78 percent of the state’s estimated voting age population of 19.3 million though that count included non-citizens.
Peck Young, who oversees the Austin Community College Center for Public Policy & Political Studies, said: "It is clear that this year 90+" percent "of the Citizen Voting Age Population of Travis County has been registered."
Texas state official
We also asked Alicia Pierce of the secretary of state’s office to assess Elfant’s claim; she emailed us a spreadsheet tallying registered Texas voters by county and showing Travis County with 720,186 registered voters. That count breaks out to 90.7 percent of the county’s citizens eligible to vote as estimated by Elfant.
By phone, Pierce advised that the state sticks to calculating registration rates using only voting-age population estimates--rather than working from estimates of citizens of voting age. In part, she said, the agency relies on the less precise metric to ease historical comparisons. The voting-age population estimates, Pierce said, come from the Texas Demographic Center located at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Elfant said that over 90 percent of Travis County’s eligible residents registered to vote in advance of the November 2016 elections.
Comparing the more than 713,871 voters registered at the time Elfant spoke to the county’s estimated 794,309 voting-age citizens--a figure rooted in 2015 household surveys--gets you to 90 percent. Folding in registrations tallied after Elfant spoke drives the result to a bit more than 90 percent.
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