HOUSTON Let me tell you a tale of two nice women we met the day before Election Day at two different barbecues.

One of them is Thelma Williams, a small business owner who runs a barbecue joint near Texas Southern University. Look around her restaurant and you ll see signs warning that she doesn t take orders from people talking on cell phones, but you ll also see a framed dollar bill bearing a picture of President Obama. As she whipped up a batch of her fried catfish, we asked her how she voted.

Straight Democratic, she said. Straight.

At another barbecue, Hickory Hollow on Heights Boulevard, we found Francis Kubosh, a kindly gray-haired woman who used to live on a farm. As she lunched on a juicy steak and green beans, she proudly told us she had done her civic duty.

Yes, I voted, she said. And I voted Republican.

Our county has quite a lot of people like Thelma and Francis, voters who consistently and predictably cast ballots in their party primaries. And therein lies a hint about what might happen on election night.

Nobody knows for sure how any election will turn out until the last votes are counted, but a tantalizing clue about which party might win Harris County can be derived from early voting data. Here s how it works.

When you cast your ballot, exactly how you voted is a secret. But the fact you voted is very much a matter of public record. And so is whether you ve voted in the Republican or Democratic primaries.

We know Thelma and Francis have already voted. We also know Thelma has a long history of voting in Democratic primaries and Francis has a long history of voting in Republican primaries. So we can make a reasonably safe assumption that Thelma probably voted Democrat and Francis probably voted Republican.

If we add up all the traditionally Democratic voters like Thelma and all the traditionally Republican voters like Francis who ve already cast early votes, we end up with an estimate of how many votes each party will receive in Harris County.

So what we did is look at the people that actually cast the vote on early voting and we actually looked at how they voted in the past, explained Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU analyst who ran the numbers. And if somebody had voted early and has, in the past, voted in the Democratic or Republican primary, we have a pretty good idea that s a Democrat or a Republican.

The data are strikingly close, with Democrats at 50.5 percent and Republicans at 49.5 percent.

What s it mean? Stein asked. It means Election Day really matters.

Stein also thinks it s generally good news for Democrats, because Republicans did such a great job turning out their voters early they don t have as many voters they can flush out on Election Day. That means a heavy turnout effort by Democrats could be their margin of victory in Harris County.

Of course, the results in Texas largest county will probably have no impact upon the presidential race. Texas is such a heavily Republican state even Democrats generally concede Mitt Romney will win our electoral votes. But the partisan turnout here could have a huge impact on down ballot races, from sheriff to district attorney to dozens of judge s jobs in the courthouse.

That s why it s especially important for Harris County voters who haven t already cast ballots to head to the polls on Election Day.

They need to vote, Francis Kubosh said. It s very important to vote. If you don t vote, you can t complain about anything.

Even though she s on the other side of town and the opposite party, Thelma Williams agreed.

People that doesn t vote can t complain, you know. she said. Because every vote counts.

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