When Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman got a call from the fire department a little after 4 a.m. today telling her a giant warehouse holding nearly all of the county's voting machines had burned to the ground, she couldn't believe her ears.
"It's like losing a member of the family," Kaufman said.
Luckily, no one was injured in the three-alarm fire along the 600 block of Canino, just west of the Hardy Toll Road near Melrose Park. What did die, however, was about 10,000 voting machines. The building was also destroyed. Kaufman says the total loss is between $30 and $40 million, including the warehouse.
"Between the roof collapsing and the heat," said Kaufman, "I have no confidence at all that the voting equipment is usable."
Early voting this election season begins October 18 and election day is November 2, which doesn't leave Kaufman and her crew much time to recover from the devastating loss. But, Kaufman says, a plan of action is already in motion.
The Secretary of State is helping Kaufman reach out to the 114 other counties in Texas that use the same voting machines as Harris County and she expects to receive many loaners. She is also negotiating replacement equipment from the vendor, though Kaufman did not have specifics at a Friday morning media conference.
"We can get by with less than 10,000 machines in November," Kaufman said, "and we don't expect to have 10,000 pieces. This election is not as big as a presidential election. However, we will urge people to vote by mail and we're putting on a full-court press for people to vote early."
There are no plans to offer paper ballots on election day.>
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When asked if she thought is was a bad idea to house all of the voting machines in one giant building, Kaufman said, "Ideally, we'd like to have the equipment spread out. In the future, we will plan to place our eggs in more than one basket."
Despite the debilitating loss, Kaufman was quite upbeat.
"I'm very optimistic in spite of this great challenge," she said. "We've had floods and other issues in the past and we've always come out and provided the service people expect, and I expect we will do the same here. There is no dout in my mind that we will have a timely election and take care of our voters."
Update: Harris County Commissioners Court has scheduled an emergency meeting Monday to be briefed on options.