EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Voter fatigue or voter suppression? The candidates running to represent El Paso in Congress disagree on what is keeping the bulk of voters home as early voting in the Nov. 8 election ends on Friday.

As of Wednesday night’s closing, a total of 70,569 residents (13.9 percent of registered voters) had cast ballots in El Paso County. That is consistent with a statewide downward trend of early voting compared to the 2018 mid-term elections. Only 22.3 percent of eligible voters in Texas had cast a ballot as of Wednesday, compared to the 35.7 percent who voted early in 2018, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Irene Armendariz-Jackson, the GOP candidate for Texas’ 16th Congressional District, said voters in this traditionally Democratic border enclave are disillusioned with the economy and record illegal immigration.

“Just knocking on doors, the reality is a lot of Democrats are sitting this one out,” Armendariz-Jackson said. “I understand some cannot bring themselves to vote for a Republican. But at the end of the day, you cannot hide it anymore. Gas is still very high; food prices are constantly rising, and people know this is happening under the Democratic leadership.”

District 16 incumbent U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, conceded that voting turnout is low and is likely to hurt Democrats. But she offered a different vision of what is driving the numbers down.

“One of the things we do know is voting by mail is significantly down. Frankly, that is by design; that’s a direct result of voter suppression,” Escobar said. “One of our volunteers fielded a heartbreaking call from an elderly woman who said she was afraid to vote by mail because she didn’t want to go to jail. This is the consequence of voter suppression.”

Texas enacted tougher voter identification rules for those who vote by mail in 2022. They must provide a state-issued photo ID or the last four digits of their Social Security number to get their application approved. The change led to a dramatic increase in the rate of rejected mail-in ballots. They went from 1 percent in 2020 to 12 percent in the March primary. In raw numbers, that was 12,000 absentee ballot applications and 24,000 mail-in ballots turned down, The Texas Tribute reported.

The beginnings of ‘Beto fatigue?’

University of Texas at El Paso Associate Professor of Communication Richard Pineda offered yet another explanation for the low voter turnout.

“People are pretty certain the GOP is going to dominate big state races. That probably has minimized turnout,” he said. “The governor’s race in which (Democrat) O’Rourke is running could be the beginnings of ‘Beto fatigue.’ People in this community are still supportive but not as excited about casting a ballot feeling that the governor (Greg Abbott) is likely to win.”

Marquee races usually stir political excitement down the ballot, particularly if controversy surrounds a candidate or the race is tight. The opposite scenario may turn voters lukewarm. A University of Texas poll released Oct. 21 had Abbott leading Beto O’Rourke by 11 points. A Nov. 1 FiveThirtyEight poll has O’Rourke 9.4 points behind Abbott.

Pineda, who is also the director of UTEP’s Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies, said largely Hispanic Texas border communities are likely to remain Democrat in this election but researchers are closely monitoring some trends. One of them is if the number of Latino men who voted Republican in 2020 keeps growing.

GOP candidates turn sights to ‘traditional’ Hispanics

Armendariz-Jackson is confident a generational shift is coming in traditionally Democratic Hispanic communities like El Paso.

“People who have voted Democratic for decades, that still believe in the Democratic Party of the Kennedys, are seeing what is happening to their party and they don’t agree with it. Most of them are conservative and they just cannot vote for” Democrats anymore, said Armendariz-Jackson.

The wife of a retired U.S. Border Patrol agent opposes abortion and illegal immigration and would only support immigration reform if it includes strong border security. “We need to take control of our borders, make sure people are properly vetted. Those who want to process paperwork properly need to leave the country,” she said. “A lot of people like my parents, my uncles, my neighbors invested time and money doing things properly (when they immigrated to the U.S.) What’s going on now is not fair.”

Escobar has served two terms in the House of Representatives and is a member of the Armed Services, Judiciary, Ethics and Climate Change committees. She has sponsored immigration rights legislation like the American Families United Act, the Dreamers Confidentiality Act, the U.S. Citizenship Act and the Immigration Enforcement Moratorium Act, among others.

She favors pro-choice and supports gay marriage.

“Low voter turnout absolutely will impact Democratic candidates but there’s still time. Early voting ends on Friday and you can’t sit this out,” Escobar said. “The future of women’s rights is on the ballot, who you can marry and who you can love is on the ballot. The kind of education you have is on the ballot and whether we take care of our planet is on the ballot. There is so much at stake in this election.”