With COVID-19 and Finger Condoms Galore, Early Voting Sure Looks Different This Year

On Friday, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins walked media members through what early voting will look like this year.
On Friday, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins walked media members through what early voting will look like this year. Photo by Schaefer Edwards

We’re about seven months into pandemic life at this point, and if that wasn’t enough to drive you nutty, our fearless leader President Donald Trump has been infected with the coronavirus. Thanks to our divisive Commander in Chief and his knack for riling-up concerned citizens on either side of any issue over the past four years, millions of Americans are expected to vote in what’s likely to be one of the highest-turnout elections in the country’s history.

As early voting kicks off in Texas on Tuesday, election officials in Harris County and neighboring Fort Bend County hope that more voting days, extended hours, extra polling places, disposable styluses and 2.3 million finger condoms — yes, you read that right — will help keep voters safe from COVID-19.

They’re also crossing their fingers that the added time to vote will help keep lines short despite the fact that this is the first general election in Texas where voters can’t easily choose to vote for all of one party’s candidates with the press of one button.

Tuesday’s early voting start date is a week earlier than usual in Texas thanks to Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision back in July to extend the voting period. Democratic Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins welcomed Abbott’s early voting extension, which came after Hollins sent the governor a letter lobbying him to do so. That said, it was pretty much the only concession the state’s Republican leadership has made to make voting easier during the pandemic.

Last week, the wholly Republican Texas Supreme Court ruled that Hollins couldn’t send out mail-in ballot applications to all county voters after he was sued by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. And on October 1, Abbott chose to limit Texas counties to one location where voters could physically drop off their mail-in ballots, which meant Harris County had to close 11 drop-off spots in less than 24 hours.

Late Friday night, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman blocked Abbott’s order to limit ballot drop-off locations. Pitman wrote in his ruling that “it is apparent that closing ballot return centers at the last minute would cause confusion” and would force older and disabled Texan voters to travel further and put them “at an increased risk of being infected by the coronavirus in order to exercise their right to vote and have it counted.”

“The Governor’s suppressive tactics should not be tolerated, and tonight’s ruling shows that the law is on the side of Texas voters” Hollins said in a statement Friday.

But Texas counties can’t reopen their closed ballot drop-off sites just yet. Paxton filed an appeal with the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on Saturday, and the court then issued a temporary order that restored Abbott’s ban for now. Regardless of how this saga plays out, Hollins and his team won’t be quick to forget that Abbott and his allies have by and large tried to stymie their efforts to give voters safer, more convenient options to cast their ballots amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“We of course celebrated that the governor responded to Chris’s letter to increase the early voting period for the entire state… [but] some of these other measures are disappointing,” said Elizabeth Lewis, the Administrator of Communications for Hollins’s office.

Since the state’s Republican leadership has done its best to limit mail-in voting citing unfounded voter fraud fears, plenty of Texans will start voting in-person for the general election come Tuesday. Social distancing rules mean voters lining up will have to spread out further than usual, but area election officials are also worried that the state Legislature’s 2017 decision to ban straight ticket voting — the option to choose at the top of your ballot to vote for all Republican or all Democratic candidates in one fell swoop — will also make voting lines even longer.

It was a popular option during the last presidential race: in the 2016 election, a whopping 64 percent of Texan voters chose to vote straight ticket.

“Now everybody has to go through the ballot, so we know that’s going to take them a considerable amount of time,” said John Oldham, the nonpartisan Election Administrator for Fort Bend County.

“On average, if folks are voting their entire ballot, it could take anywhere between 12 and 20 minutes for people to cast their ballot,” Hollins said. “If you would have voted straight ticket in the past, that could be as quick as two minutes.”

Hollins, Lewis and Oldham said that new procedures their counties have put in place in time for the start of early voting on Tuesday — sweeping changes in Harris County and key tweaks in Fort Bend County — will help voters who venture out to a polling place stay safe from the coronavirus and will ideally keep lines as short as possible.

click to enlarge Hollins modeled the finger condoms that Harris County voters will receive to protect them from touching voting machines and potentially catching the coronavirus. - PHOTO BY SCHAEFER EDWARDS
Hollins modeled the finger condoms that Harris County voters will receive to protect them from touching voting machines and potentially catching the coronavirus.
Photo by Schaefer Edwards
Polling machines will be spread-out at least six feet apart based on social distancing guidelines. In Harris County, voters will be given a sanitizing wipe and one roll-up rubber cover to put over their finger that’ll be touching the voting machine — Twitter users have affectionately dubbed them “finger condoms,” although Lewis said the county prefers the significantly less fun “finger covers.”

In Fort Bend County, this election will be the first time new touch-screen voting machines will be used. Oldham said to keep the process as touch-free as possible, voters will be given disposable styluses to operate each machine that they can chuck in the trash on the way out the door.

Polling places in both counties will be decked-out with plenty of personal protective equipment for poll workers, who will all have their temperatures screened as they show up for work and will be required to wear face masks.

Temperature screens for voters, however, won’t be mandatory in either county. Based on an exemption Abbott included in his statewide mask mandate, voters won’t be required to wear masks either, although they’ll be strongly encouraged to mask-up by poll workers and signs at every voting spot.

“We hope that they will, but we can’t make ‘em,” Oldham said.

There will be 122 places to vote early in Harris County this year, which Lewis said is triple the number that were open during the 2016 presidential election. Fort Bend County has added more early voting locations as well, but not nearly as many as its neighbor to the east. “We have 30 for this election… for a general election, I think the most we’ve had is 22,” Oldham said.

In a first for Texas, Harris County will also offer “24-hour voting” at seven locations. At these spots, polls will be open from 7 a.m. October 29 all the way through 7 p.m. October 30. “The only other place that has ever done 24-hour voting is Las Vegas,” Lewis bragged.

Another Harris County innovation is drive-thru voting, which is available to any voter who’d rather not set foot inside a polling place. At 10 locations, Harris County voters can simply drive up, get handed a portable voting machine and fill out their ballots from the safety of their cars.

One election X-factor Lewis and Oldham are keeping an eye on is a potential swell in poll watchers, citizen volunteers who are allowed to observe voting for any irregularities.

During the first presidential debate, Trump ominously told his supporters “to go into the polls and watch very carefully” based on his belief (without proof) that allegedly rampant voter fraud might steal the election out from under him. Despite Trump’s call to arms, would-be Defenders of Democracy in the Lone Star state should know there’s an official process Texans have to go through in order to be poll watchers.

For starters, Texan poll watchers have to be appointed by a candidate, a political party or a group who either supports or opposes a ballot measure, and then need to have that entity fill out and submit a form from the Texas Secretary of State’s office. For those who go through the whole rigamarole to get approved, only two watchers for any given appointing authority are allowed at a polling place at any given time.

“You can’t just have people, like non-voters, just going in and standing over. There’s a process,” Lewis said. “We are watching that closely.”

Oldham explained he’s optimistic that even if more people than usual show up to monitor the polls, past experience says they might not stick around too long.

“We’ve had poll watchers in the past, and there’s been sometimes organized efforts to get poll watchers,” Oldham said. “During the early voting period, most of them give up after one day because they get bored and everything’s fine, so they just don’t come back.”

Higher numbers of voters using mail-in ballots across the country due to the pandemic has led government officials in some parts of the country to warn that they might not be able to report full election results as quickly as in years past.

For example, Michigan’s Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said last month that voters in her state should be prepared for it to take days after election night to know how every race shook out.

Hollins doesn’t think that’ll be the case in Harris County, despite the likelihood of a record number of Texans voting by mail this year.

Even though Texas law says mail-in ballots can’t be officially counted until the polls close on Election Day, election officials are still allowed to “process” those ballots — basically everything except counting the actual vote, like taking the ballots out of their protective envelopes and having the signatures checked to see if they match what’s on file with a voter’s registration info — before the end of voting.

That process will start in Harris County this Wednesday, Hollins said, and will continue on a rolling basis, which gives him confidence that his office will be able to turn full results around quickly.

“We’re gonna have an election night,” Hollins stressed. “I know that places like Michigan and other places, they’ve said ‘Hey, we’re gonna have an election week.' We don’t see it that way here.”

Early voting in Texas starts on October 13 and runs through October 30. Election Day is November 3.
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Schaefer Edwards is a staff writer at the Houston Press who covers local and regional news. A lifelong Texan and adopted Houstonian, he loves NBA basketball and devouring Tex-Mex while his cat watches in envy.
Contact: Schaefer Edwards