That voters in Texas’ largest county were forced to wait several hours to cast ballots on Tuesday was rightfully derided as unacceptable — and even as an example of voter suppression, given that some of longest lines were in minority neighborhoods.
But what happened in Harris County during its Super Tuesday primary election is more complicated than being just another chapter in Texas’ long history of restrictive voting policies, though that history certain provides an important context.
Like a similar fiasco in Arizona in the 2016 presidential primary, it appears that at least partially to blame for the long waits in the Houston area was its recent shift to a vote center model — an innovation that is generally praised by voter advocates and has worked well elsewhere in the country.
Under the vote center model, voters can choose from a number of voting centers in the county, regardless of their street address. Harris County moved to a vote center model in 2019.
There is still a lot to be learned about what exactly went wrong, but as Rep. Al Green (D-AL), a U.S. House member from Houston, told TPM, it appears a number of factors added up to a “perfect storm.”
Some of the most troublesome polling places were on college campuses, like Texas Southern University, where voters reported waiting an hour just to get into the building and then another several hours to actually vote. (Anyone who was in line by 7 p.m., the time polls officially closed, was allowed to vote, election officials stressed.) The last person to cast a ballot at TSU reportedly waited seven hours, leaving the vote center in the early hours of the next morning.
— ed lavandera (@edlavaCNN) March 4, 2020
A Rocky Rollout Of A Popular Innovation
Tuesday’s primary was only the second Harris County election in which voters were casting ballots at vote centers — the first was last November, for local offices, and turnout was much smaller.
Advocates usually praise the vote center model because it lets voters chose where they cast their ballots. They can vote at any polling place in the county — including near their workplace or their kids’ school — instead of just at polling place in precinct for their residence. The flip side is that the number of polling places overall are reduced, as vote centers must be larger and more sophisticated to handle a potentially larger influx of voters who may be voting with different types of ballots depending on their precinct.
The election of Democrat Diane Trautman — who campaigned on moving to a vote center model — as Harris County clerk in 2018 was treated as a victory for voting rights, as she defeated a longtime Republican clerk whose incompetency in election administration inspired memes and a Twitter hashtag.
Mary Moreno, a spokesperson for a Texas-based voting rights group that sounded the alarm about Tuesday’s lines, said that generally she “loved” vote centers, but the set-up on Tuesday needed more polling places and better coordination between the locations.
“I definitely believe that if vote centers are done correctly, they can be very helpful to voters,” she said
According to her group Texas Organizing Project, the two commission precincts with the most African American and Latino voters had significantly fewer vote centers than the county’s two other commission precincts.
Michael Li, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said this allocation may have been the result of “questionable” judgement about what turn out would be in those areas of Houston on Super Tuesday, and Moreno agreed with the theory that officials underestimated the turnout of certain voters.
A spokesperson for Trautman, who is the county’s top election official, did not respond to TPM’s inquiry.
Analysis of the early vote in Texas showed that voters of color made up the majority of this year’s surge in primary voting.
There will no doubt be a push for the county to rethink the number of vote centers it will make available for this November’s election and where it will put them.
“We’re going to have to take a really hard look at where those voting centers were,” U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D), also of Houston, told TPM, while noting that Harris County was new to the vote center system. “So I suspect we will have a lot of lessons to learn and I’m going to strongly urge the local elected officials, especially the person in charge, to make sure she fully analyzes it.”
A ‘Perfect Storm Of Missteps’
Beyond the switch to voter centers, other factors appear to have contributed to Harris County’s long waits. One such factor may have been a shortage of equipment at the polling places; dozens of reserve machines were sent to certain polling places with long lines as an emergency measure during the day.
There were reports at some polling places of the machines designated for Republican voters going relatively unused while Democrats waited for hours to vote on the machines designated for them.
Trautman explained on Twitter Tuesday that she had offered the two parties a plan for them to share primary election infrastructure, but the proposal was rejected by Republicans, who said in their rejection letter the idea would increase “confusion,” “delay” and “cost.”
Correction – there wasn’t an agreement between parties. One party agreed while the other did not. https://t.co/XqXzc3D9J1
— Diane Trautman (@dtrautman) March 4, 2020
Rep. Green, who stayed at a polling place in Houston until after 1 .m., identified other things that went awry there.
He said that at midnight all the machines at the voter center shut down automatically and had to be rebooted, perhaps because they were designed to stay on only for Election Day.
Additionally, according to Green, there was an issue for some voters with individualized numbers they were given by staff at polling places to use at voting machines to cast their ballot. Some voters were given their numbers while they were waiting in line, but apparently the numbers became void after 30 minutes, meaning those who waited longer then that were not able to use them once they got to voting machine.
“It was a perfect storm of missteps, but I don’t in any way hold poll workers for it, because I think they did as best as they could,” he said.
Zenén Pérez, the advocacy and communications director for Texas Civil Rights Project, said he heard about the issues Green described and said additionally, some polling places ran out of printer paper, further slowing down the process.
He also stressed, that the recent changes to Harris County’s system aside, Texas has along history of “willful neglect,” and that election officials have failed to make improving election administration a priority.
He warned that someone who may have shown up to vote for the first time Tuesday, after groups like his worked hard to mobilize them, may have been so discouraged by the long waits they won’t show up in November.
“People are really losing trust in the electoral process,” he said.