As the KTRK news helicopter hovered overhead, the scene at East Houston's Dezavala Park polling center slowly came into full view. It was nearly 7:30 p.m. on a hot and humid Tuesday night, and hundreds of people were standing in the dark, the long line snaking outside the building and across the blacktop of the covered basketball court before curling through the grassy yard and around the edge of the building. It looked like something straight out of a disaster movie in which people line up for food and water. But all they were trying to do at Dezavala Park was vote.
Somewhere in the crowd was Adrian Garcia, the former Harris County Sheriff who was challenging Gene Green for the District 29 congressional seat. Garcia, a little sweaty and sounding tired, made a short video from the polling center describing the disturbing scene.
"Someone's incompetence combined four precincts in a tiny room with only four machines for a heavily Democratic area, and four machines for the Republican section of the voting area with almost no Republican community to participate," Garcia said in the video. "It's ridiculous that this community should have to wait this long to vote. It is a total disrespect to this community."
At De Zavala Park with many ppl waiting hours to vote!Posted by Adrian Garcia on Tuesday, March 1, 2016
The Dezavala Park fiasco was not an outlier on election night. All over Harris County, voters struggled to exercise their constitutional right to cast their ballots. Yesterday, the Houston Chronicle focused on Acres Homes, where residents were redirected from their usual polling places and then redirected once again after they reached where they were originally told to go. That problem was widespread. In addition to the polling location confusion, people complained about inefficiency, long lines and voting booth shortages. Voters took to social media to air their frustration:
While dealing with these potentially disenfranchising problems, the county was also slow to tabulate early voting results.
In stoic protest of the lateness of the county's top elections officer, Stan Stanart, the Chron's political editor, Matt Schwartz, took it upon himself to hilariously tweet embarrassing photos of the slow county clerk.
I assume guys are captioning these pic.twitter.com/SN6sgQKy4Y— Matt Schwartz (@SchwartzChron) March 2, 2016
Finally, at 8:30 p.m., the early voting results started to trickle in.
The total vote count would eventually shatter the half-million mark, with 326,301 people voting in the Republican presidential primary race and 222,240 Texans casting their ballots in the Democratic presidential primary. It is unclear how many people didn't vote as a result of the night's myriad problems.
So who's to blame for the dysfunction? Stanart did admit that his office as well as the Republican and Democratic parties underestimated the turnout, but he was quick to say that neither he nor the two parties were at fault. While Stanart made it quite clear that he thought the large turnout was "fantastic," he also seemed to blame the voters for taking too long to vote.
"We had tons of people show up, and people were also in the voting booth a long time, much longer than they were during early voting," Stanart said in a phone interview. "So that's part of the reason why there were lines. We had people telling us that lots of people were in the voting booth for 20, 30 minutes. That's because we had a lot of voters who had never voted in a primary before. When you have a limited number of machines, that causes a congestion problem."
It is hard to understand how anyone could not have expected a massive primary turnout in Texas. There's a Texan running for president, another candidate who wants to build a wall along the state's border, and the primary date is early enough that the presidential race is still hot, not to mention a number of key inner-party battles under way. That's why, Stanart said, the county and the parties upped their turnout predictions from the last presidential primary year. Stanart said he increased the Democrats' estimate alone from 58,000 to 120,000. But it was not enough.
"The turnout was projected to be much higher than the last presidential election, and the plan was put in place to support that," Stanart said. "We anticipated part of the large turnout, just not to the degree it actually happened. There's a point where people start saying you're crazy. Part of this is an art in estimation. The best thing we can go for is what happened in history and what we think the increase will be. I totally regret that people were waiting. The parties underestimated this, and my office underestimated this too. But any serious person out there was, I think, surprised on election day."
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However, it appears as though plenty of people predicted an exorbitantly large turnout, including Stanart. Back on February 16, Stanart said he expected 400,000 total voters at the polls, and told the Texas Tribune: "I think Republican turnout is going to blow the doors off." His hyperbolic prediction would prove to be pretty accurate — 548,541 ballots were cast in the presidential primaries — yet the county still had to hustle late in the game to get more machines in more precincts.
"It wasn't until we saw people voting when [the parties] said they had to have more [machines], and we added more during the early voting time," Stanart said. "But the machines are delivered by truck. It takes a lot of 18-wheelers to get them all out because of the logistics of how large Harris County is. We were able to add more at the last minute before being hammered even more on election day, and we sent out more then, too."
Clearly, this year's effort fell short. The voting process was still marred by inefficiency in many overwhelmed precincts, like Dezavala Park, where, even at 7:30 at night on election day, there were still only four machines and a line stretching down the street. But according to Stanart, all those involved did everything they could to make sure voters could easily vote. Everything they did, though, seemed to be one step behind.