When Precinct Judge Amy McCan fired up the voting machines on Tuesday morning, only one of the machines turned on. There were already people lined up to cast their ballots when the polling place located at Greater Love Baptist Church in the Fifth Ward opened. The line quickly snaked out the door as more people arrived. They all had to wait their turn on a single voting machine.
It turned out that the church's electrical wires were low on power because they'd been eaten by rodents and other pests. Yep, that's right: Voters in the Fifth Ward had a hard time voting because rats apparently ate some of the electrical wiring inside the church.
It took awhile to figure out what the source of the problem was. At first McCan thought it was the machines that weren't working properly. While people continued to wait in line, McCan called for a technician to come and get the other machines back up and running. An elderly voter approached the technician while he worked and asked him if any other polls were having this kind of trouble. The technician told the voter that this was the only polling area that wasn't up and running.
McCan says the people waiting in line, many of whom were older African American voters who make a point of showing up and casting their ballots on election day, immediately began grumbling as they started to assume the worst. "They all started thinking that this was some kind of conspiracy," McCan explained. "These are people who fought for the right to vote and who remember the days when they couldn't, so they started thinking that there was something more going on here."
However, after Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart's office sent out another technician to look at the dead machines, they discovered that the problem was actually the electrical wiring. "Rats and things like that have been getting in the wiring and chewing it up. This has been a problem for years. It's not a problem the city just found out about today," McCan says. The machines were without sufficient power to run from shortly after 7 a.m. when the polls opened to about 2 p.m. After that, the county clerk's office provided a generator that buzzed along outside the polling place providing enough electricity for people to cast their ballots on all the machines.
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Still, by the end of the day, only about 130 people had voted, according to McCan, even though the precinct usually gets about 300 voters for these types of elections (the non-presidential ones.) Some people showed up and got so frustrated with the long line and the delays that they left. McCan says she was able to persuade some voters to stay while they worked on the machines and the electrical wiring, while others came back later in the day, but there were a lot of frustrated people.
Hector DeLeon, a spokesman for Stanart's office, says that voting was never prevented at the Greater Love Baptist Church. "During the time of the issue, there were voting machines working. People were voting. The voting machines are equipped with batteries and can run up to four hours without electricity," he says.
But even though the problem was solved for the night, McCan says she's worried about what they're going to do in the runoffs in December and the presidential elections next year. Greater Love has been the place to vote in the neighborhood for more than four decades, she says. Moving the polling place may not seem like a big deal to most people, but for those who are elderly and who have been voting here for years, it could be a problem. "That's a big election for us, the presidential election. I hope they figure things out before then."
At the very least, it seems like a good idea to bring in a solid supply of generators.