Americans have already been voting like crazy, and there are still two weeks to go before Election Day on November 3. That holds especially true for Texas, where so far over four million voters have already voted early, putting the Lone Star State above all others for early voting so far according to the U.S. Elections Project.
In Harris County — Texas’s largest county and the third largest county in America — a whopping 628,708 votes came through between in-person and mailed ballots during the first six days of early voting, which started on October 13. As of 4:10 p.m. Monday, 58,600 people had voted in-person that day in Harris County.
Elizabeth Lewis, the Administrator of Communications for the Harris County Clerk’s office, said this year’s early vote tally is already nearly two-thirds of the total early vote count in 2016, when approximately 977,000 early votes were cast in Harris County. And with around 1.3 million votes cast during the entire election period in Harris County in 2016, this year’s total vote count is already on pace to blow that total away and then some, a sign that the pandemic isn’t scaring voters off.
“We’re very happy with the planning that we’ve done and all the thought that we’ve put into our voting plan to make voting efficient and safe, and you’ve seen that pay off,” said Lewis.
Early voters are also breaking records over in neighboring Fort Bend County. During the first five days of early voting, Fort Bend County Judge KP George tweeted that approximately 117,000 votes were cast combined between in-person and mail-in voting.
“We had a total of 200,066 [votes] in-person for the two-week early voting period [in 2016],” said John Oldham, Fort Bend County’s nonpartisan Election Administrator. He said that this year’s early voting period, with an extra six days thanks to an extension granted by Gov. Greg Abbott, should easily be the most popular voting period the county has ever seen.
That voter enthusiasm doesn’t seem to have been dampened by a mistake Oldham’s office made when setting up the county’s new voting machinery this summer which caused widespread delays and outages on the first morning of early voting last Tuesday. Oldham said those issues were temporarily fixed by Tuesday afternoon and were permanently corrected at all Fort Bend County polling locations “by Wednesday evening.”
Since those early hiccups, Oldham said the only problems he’s heard of are a small number of isolated connectivity issues that temporarily took a few machines here and there out of commission. He said his office has been doing its best to respond on the fly to issues as they arise, but the massive number of voters hasn’t made things easy.
“To be honest, we grossly underestimated how many people would be voting,” he admitted.
Another thing that was apparently grossly underestimated is how many complaints Galveston County would receive from mask-averse voters who were given a hard time by election workers at polling places in the county.
On Friday, Galveston County Judge Mark Henry issued an order barring election workers from turning away voters for not wearing a face mask, a move he made after he said a poll worker in League City accosted him and his wife because neither of them were wearing masks when voting.
Zach Davidson, Henry’s communications director, said that the county judge’s office had received “numerous complaints from people that were not wearing masks that were turned away from the polls” prior to Friday.
Since mask-wearing at polling places isn’t required by Abbott’s statewide mask mandate, Henry felt it was necessary to formally threaten election workers with a $1,000 fine if they turned unmasked voters away.
“He doesn’t want to see anybody turned away from the polls for any reason, especially when Gov. Abbott’s executive order exempted people from wearing masks [at the polls]” Davidson said of his boss’s rationale. “Although they are strongly encouraged, they’re not required.”
While Harris County isn’t likely to follow suit with a similar order to Henry’s, he is correct that it’s illegal to prevent voters from casting a ballot even if they don’t have a mask, said Lewis.
“You cannot make wearing a mask a condition of being able to vote,” Lewis said. She explained that Harris County has multiple lines of defense in place against would-be maskless voters who insist on heading to the polls without taking the recommended precautions to protect their fellow residents by wearing a face mask.
First, if a voter strolls into a voting center in Harris County unmasked, Lewis said poll workers will offer them one free of charge from the stockpiles of protective equipment at each polling place.
And if that doesn’t work, they’re still allowed to exercise their Constitutional right to vote — just further away from their more public health-minded fellow voters, at a special voting booth designated at each site for maskless voters that’s distanced further away from the rest of the machines.
“Our machines are six feet apart, and this one is going to be ten feet, so you’ve got a little extra buffer there just to make sure that we’re keeping you safe,” she said.