On the first day of early voting, widespread technical difficulties in Fort Bend County meant that no votes could be cast when polls opened at 8 a.m. Tuesday. Hundreds of would-be voters were queued up in massive lines at polling places across the county, many of whom gave up and went home after waiting for an hour or longer.
In an impromptu press conference posted live to Facebook, Fort Bend County Judge KP George acknowledged the “technical glitches” with the county’s voting system Tuesday morning, and said that “half our machines are back online” as of 8:47 a.m.
“We will make sure this won’t happen again in Fort Bend County,” George said, flanked by his fellow Democrats elected to countywide office. George said he will authorize a full investigation of what led to the errors, said whoever is responsible will be held accountable and raised the spectre of voter suppression.
Update 3 p.m. By early afternoon all voting machines at Smart Financial Centre were in full operation. The wait to vote was about 30 minutes starting at 2 p.m. Originally people were lined up outside the building but with the afternoon's heat climbing to 90 degrees, election volunteers instead rerouted people into the building and down through the concert seating area before coming back out into the lobby area to vote.
The county’s nonpartisan Election Administrator John Oldham said that the root cause of Tuesday’s voting outage wasn’t an intentional desire to suppress the vote, and was simply a case of human error.
He said that back in early July when the county’s new voting equipment was being set up, his staff coded in the then scheduled start date for early voting of October 19. After Gov. Greg Abbott extended the state’s early voting period by a week to October 13 on July 27, OIldham said his staff did not think to go back in and change the date, which is why the voting system did not come online as planned when election workers first turned on their machines at 7:30 a.m. this morning.
The error wasn’t caught sooner, Oldham said, because the testing mode that his office used to see if the new voting machines were working properly doesn’t take into account the start date that was entered into the system.
“It was a human error. It was right when we put it in, but when the governor extended the dates, we didn’t go back and change it. So that’s on us. But in our test mode, the date doesn’t matter, so when we were testing all this equipment we did not realize that there was going to be this mismatch,” Oldham said.
Oldham explained that he and his staff have been calling election workers all morning to talk them through the complicated process of correcting the date mismatch in every poll book laptop, the master control system for all of the voting machines in a polling place. He said that as of 9:30 a.m. “two-thirds to three-quarters” of the county’s polling places were back online.
There were more than 200 people lined up inside and outside the Fort Bend County annex in Missouri City as of 9:30 a.m. when election volunteers came out and informed everyone that they hoped to have all the voting machines working shortly.
Nearly all of the would-be voters were wearing masks but too many had crowded inside the brick building and all of a sudden a small herd of them were expelled from the building by election officials and asked to re-line up outside. "Shoulder's length apart, shoulders' length apart," one official called out.
The few volunteers — one of whom said there just weren't enough election volunteers on hand for what everyone knew would be a big response for early voting — went up and down the line to explain to people that there had been a computer date glitch.
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"All the other election sites are saying they have 200 to 300 people waiting to vote outside," one volunteer said. Some people were heading to the nearby polling site at Hightower High School. but the volunteer warned they might not have better luck there.
"If you can't vote today, please come back another day to vote," one woman handing out candidate information called to the backs of some departing people.
Oldham said that he was confident that all of the county’s voting machines would be back up and running at some point today, but that his staff would have to manually service the poll book laptops at each polling place this evening.
“We’ve got to fix the root of the problem tonight, and that means that sometime after our polls close we’re going to have to go to each site and install a new file on these laptops, and make sure we back-up the information on who voted today,” he said.