Early voting started with an impressive turnout in Texas on Tuesday, despite some early hiccups and delays. While a voting system snafu caused serious delays in Fort Bend County, things went off pretty much without a hitch in neighboring Harris County, where over 100,000 voters flocked to polling places.
For a sign of just how much voter enthusiasm is out there as the hotly contested presidential election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden kicks off, consider the fact that Harris County surpassed its previous day one of early voting record — approximately 68,000 votes in 2016 — by 1:40 p.m. Tuesday with over five hours of voting left in the day.
By 4:34 p.m., Harris County’s Tuesday vote tally had soared to 100,832, surpassing the previous early voting-wide record of 100,005 votes cast on the final day of early voting in 2016 according to Elizabeth Lewis, the Administrator of Communications for the Harris County Clerk’s office.
“More people have voted today than in any early voting day in history,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “Folks are clearly enthusiastic about getting out and having their voices heard at the polls, and we’re doing our best to support them.”
There were some sizable voting lines early on in Houston according to Twitter chatter — including from Rice University President David Leebron — and the Harris County early voting website, which has a real-time map of all the county’s polling places that’s color-coded for how long voters are waiting at each spot. But by Tuesday afternoon, Houston voters weren’t having to wait too long, for the most part.
At the Houston Metropolitan Multi-Service Center on West Gray, there was a line of about 50 face-masked voters that wrapped around two sides of the building at 1:45 p.m. Tuesday. The line was moving quickly, though: Joby Hughes was midway through, and said he had only waited about 10 minutes at that point.
Hughes said even though he’s almost 60 and therefore at an elevated risk to be hit hard by COVID-19, he felt safe coming out to vote in-person due to the safety precautions he’d heard that Harris County had put into place, along with the expectation that voters in his neighborhood would be wearing their face masks.
“I’m very high-risk, [but] it’s just that everyone is spaced… everyone’s wearing a mask. So yeah, I feel fine,” he said.
As of mid-afternoon Tuesday, there weren’t any lines at all at NRG Park and Toyota Center, two of Harris County’s biggest polling places. At both locations, voters reported being in and out in about 10 to 15 minutes. The two converted sports arenas also each had drive-thru voting set up, where voters could simply pull up in their cars and get handed a portable voter machine inside their vehicles — like a Sonic drive-thru, but for democracy.
People had to wait a bit longer in the northern reaches of Harris County, where over 100 voters were lined up just before 12:30 p.m. at the Big Stone Lodge polling place in Spring. At least ten of them were brandishing umbrellas to block out the sun on a particularly toasty fall afternoon.
Even further to the north in Montgomery County, the South County Community Center polling place in The Woodlands had upwards of 300 voters waiting to cast their ballots around 2:30 p.m. Tuesday. “This is historic,” said one of those voters, LaDonna Jensen. “Before this, the longest line I’ve seen was in 2018 when Beto came here.”
Over in Fort Bend County, there was no way of knowing what Tuesday morning's widespread computer problems had done in terms of the number of first day votes. The county had failed to reset the voting equipment after Gov. Abbott extended early voting by allowing it to start on October 13 instead of October 19. As a result, hundreds of people throughout the county arrived to vote only to find out they couldn't in the early morning hours.
By early afternoon, all the voting machines were in full swing at the polling site at Smart Financial Centre (which also doubles as a COVID-19 testing center). An election worker there said the machines had started up around 10:45 a.m., cratered again, and then were able to resume.
Voting lines which had wrapped around the building were re-routed inside after afternoon temperatures climbed to 90 degrees. So voters there also ended up getting an impromptu tour of the concert floor as they wove their way through the building. Volunteers offered bottles of water to those in line. Masks were everywhere in evidence and social distancing was enforced.
“It’s not been a good day,” said John Oldham, Fort Bend County’s nonpartisan Election Administrator, on Tuesday afternoon. “We just have been having an overwhelmingly large turnout that would have been challenging even in the best of circumstances. But it was our poll book problems this morning that delayed us anywhere from a half hour to, in some cases, maybe two hours opening [each voting site].”
On Tuesday afternoon, Fort Bend County Judge KP George announced that the county’s Commissioners Court approved extending early voting hours from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. for the rest of this week starting Wednesday due to the widespread voting outage the county suffered early Tuesday.
Oldham said that stats on how many people voted in the county on Tuesday weren’t available. “That’s data that we normally communicate through our pollbooks, and we can’t do it because of the changes we’ve had to apply.”
He explained Tuesday night that election officials would be installing a software fix to permanently address the date mismatch issue on each polling place’s master poll book laptop, and that the records of which county residents voted on Tuesday would be backed up beforehand. Oldham stressed that only identifying information for voters is contained on the poll book laptops, whereas the official tally of votes cast is stored on the voting machines themselves and won’t need to be backed up.
Legal wrangling from state Republicans over early voting procedures was still a hot topic even as voting kicked off Tuesday morning. Late Monday night, hours before in-person voting began, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision from October 1 to bar Texas counties from having more than one mail-in ballot drop-off location, countering Harris County’s plan to open 12 drop-off spots in total.
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That same night, state GOP chairman Allen West and the Texas Republican Party sued Harris County in an attempt to halt its drive-thru voting program, although Hollins contended there’s nothing illegal about the new process.
“I wish that Allen West would have it in his heart to care about voters, and to care about people casting their votes here in the state of Texas, but you can’t change him,” Hollins said.
“Here in Harris County — despite antics from Republicans including the governor, the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, you name it — this is going to be the most accessible election in the history of Texas,” he continued.
Anna Ta and Margaret Downing contributed to this report.