Houstonians will soon be able to set foot inside Toyota Center for the first time in months, just not to watch the Houston Rockets rain down three-pointers or to see the latest pop sensation live in concert. On Thursday, the Rockets and Interim Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins announced that the downtown sports and entertainment venue will be a voting location for the upcoming presidential election this fall.
Toyota Center will be open as a polling place throughout the entire early voting period of October 13-30, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week, as well as Election Day itself on November 3, and free parking will be available for all voters. The new massive voting center will have plenty of space for voters to perform their civic duty in a socially distanced fashion, and is part of Hollins’ push to make sure voting can take place without contributing to the spread of COVID-19.
In a video announcing the move, Rockets star James Harden was joined by coach Mike D’Antoni and other Rockets players and staff to call on Houstonians to register to vote. As part of this initiative, area residents can text ROCKETS to 26797 to confirm their voter registration status.
“Harris County needs more voting centers than ever before in order to accommodate record voter turnout while following strict safety protocols to keep voters and election workers safe at the polls,” Hollins said in a statement. “We’re grateful to the Rockets organization and to the Toyota Center team for stepping up to serve Harris County residents.”
Hollins, a 33-year-old Democrat, was appointed Interim Harris County Clerk earlier this summer when his predecessor, Democrat Diane Trautman, 70, abruptly resigned less than two years into her term citing health concerns due to serving in such a public role during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Toyota Center isn’t the only local sports venue that’ll be hosting election activities come October: Last month, Harris County Commissioners Court approved a plan to use NRG Arena as another large-scale polling place in addition to serving as the headquarters for the county’s vote counting efforts, which will give county staff the ability to practice social distancing much more easily than in the clerk’s office.
Earlier this week, Commissioners Court voted 3-2 along party lines to approve an additional $17.1 million requested by Hollins to pay for an expansive voting accessibility plan for this fall’s election, all but $1 million of which is coming from federal CARES Act funding.
Hollins’ plan, which he said “is based on math” drawn from expected high voter turnout and implementing COVID-19 related safety measures during Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, calls for 12,000 poll workers to be hired, an expansion of the number of early voting locations to 120 — up from 46 in 2016 — and 808 voting sites for Election Day itself. The plan will also create ten drive-thru voting sites across Harris County to accommodate residents who are unable to enter a regular polling place due to disability or health issues.
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Republican Commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle were the two votes against the proposal from Hollins. Cagle seemed frustrated by the high-price tag compared to past elections — the additional $17.1 million puts the current approved budget for fall’s election at over $27 million. “[In] 2008, we spent $3.7 million for the entire election. 2012, it was $3.2 million. 2016, it was $4.1 million,” Cagle said.
Prior to his vote, Radack expressed concerns about the number of polling places in Democratic-leaning Precinct 1, which he said was set to have 236 voting sites on Election Day compared to 181 in Radack’s Precinct 3. Hollins argued that the disparity was due to the large number of people who work in Precinct 1, which covers a large swath of the area inside the 610 Loop in central Houston, but also said that choosing polling place locations “is an iterative process” that is still underway.
Back in July, Gov. Greg Abbott extended the state’s early voting time frame by one week due to COVID-19, but has continued to reject calls from Texas Democrats to expand access to mail-in ballots, which state law dictates will only be approved for voters who are either 65 or older, are disabled, will be outside their home county on Election Day or are in jail. On Tuesday, Hollins announced that his office would send every registered voter in Harris County — approximately 2.4 million — an application for a mail-in ballot.
“Looking toward November, we will continue to do everything in our power to reduce exposure to coronavirus so that voters don’t have to make the choice between their safety and from having their voices heard at the poll,” Hollins said.