A potential nightmare for Texas Republicans began to materialize early Tuesday, taking the form of tens of thousands of voters lined up at the polls in Harris County.
By day’s end, the number of ballots cast on the first day of early voting in Houston and its suburbs had shattered all records.
The early numbers are almost certainly bad news for Texas Republicans. Control of the White House depends on Republican domination of Texas, which in turn relies on containing a voting surge in the nation’s third most populous county, which is only solidifying as a Democratic stronghold.
Much of the Democrats’ dream of turning Texas blue is pinned on ramping up turnout in Houston and other Texas cities where voters, many of whom are people of color, trend heavily their way.
In a bitterly contested election, overlaid with the fears and risks of an uncontrolled pandemic, Harris County has become a case study in raw politics and partisan efforts to manipulate voter turnout. Republican leaders and activists have furiously worked the levers of power, churning out lawsuits, unsubstantiated specters of voter fraud and official state orders in their bid to limit voters' options during the pandemic.
Their power hemmed in by state officials, Houston Democrats have launched a robust effort to make voting as easy as possible, tripling the number of early and Election Day polling locations and increasing the county’s election budget from $4 million in 2016 to $33 million this fall. They reject GOP claims that making voting easier carries inherent risks of widespread voter fraud.
The battle lines were acknowledged in one of the many lawsuits Republican leaders and activists filed in the past few months attempting to rein in Harris County’s efforts to expand voting access.
"As Texas goes, so too will the rest of the country. As Harris County goes, so too will Texas," the GOP lawsuit read. "If President Trump loses Texas, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for him to be reelected."
Local political observers agree the writing is on the wall: Most of Houston's residents are people of color, its local leaders are Democrats, and it is the fastest-growing county in the state, according to recent census data.
"This county looks like what Texas is going to look like in 10 years, and they know that if Harris County can become solidly entrenched in the Democratic Party, it’s just going to disperse from there," said Melanye Price, endowed professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University and a Harris County voter. "I think in some ways they're going to have more of an influence, and the governor knows that, and the attorney general knows that, and that is why they’ve decided to hobble them at every turn."
It's no coincidence, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said, that GOP efforts to tightly enforce Texas voting laws — among the nation’s most restrictive — target an important Democratic stronghold and one of the country's most diverse cities.
"If you look at [election results] for Harris County, you see a very clear trend," Hollins said. "If I were in the business of trying to suppress Democratic votes, I know where I would target."
Harris County going bluer
With Harris County slipping from its grasp, the GOP's road to political safety in Texas and beyond grows more perilous as Democratic candidates from the top to the bottom of the ballot siphon more and more votes from the county’s 2.4 million registered voters.
In 2008, nearly 600,000 Democratic votes were cast in the presidential election in Harris County, edging out Republican votes for the first time in recent history. In 2016, the spread was even wider: Democrats cast more than 700,000 votes for president, while Republicans cast closer to 550,000.
In 2018, 17% of the state's Democratic votes for U.S. Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke were cast in Harris County alone.
"The number of Democratic votes that come out of Harris County is very important for who wins the state," said Austin attorney and public-interest advocate Fred Lewis, who helped organize voter drives in Harris County after President Barack Obama won the county in 2008. "It's no longer important for who wins Harris because that's over."
Jared Woodfill, a local attorney and former Harris County GOP chairman who has sued both Abbott and the county over the election, said conservatives aren't trying to thwart Democrats but are trying to enforce election laws.
"To the extent that the law is what it is, you've got to follow it," he said. "If the Democrats want to flaunt or violate the law, it's just illegal. The reason that these laws are in place is to protect the integrity of the ballot box. So it's interesting that the Democrats want to somehow unilaterally suspend the law and put provisions in place that will allow voter fraud to thrive."
Requests for interviews with Harris County GOP officials, including Chairman Keith Nielsen and several precinct chairpersons, and the Republican Party of Texas were not answered. The offices of Abbott and Steven Hotze, a Houston conservative activist who has filed several lawsuits with Woodfill, did not respond to requests for interviews. A spokesperson at Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's office referred questions to his previous statements and court filings.
Expanding voter access
When Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman resigned in May, the commissioners on a party-line vote appointed Hollins, vice chairman of finance for the Texas Democratic Party and a local personal injury lawyer, to serve on an interim basis until her successor is elected in November. Hollins is not running for election.
Since Hollins' June appointment, he and Houston elections officials have launched a robust effort to expand voter access.
Hollins created a 23-point initiative this summer to turn around a decadeslong history of chronic election problems in the county of 4.8 million and avoid a drop in turnout due to the coronavirus, which disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic people.
But Republican activists, party officials and state leaders have voted against local initiatives, sought injunctions and filed multiple lawsuits to halt the unprecedented effort in Harris County.
Their resistance has almost uniformly advanced under the banner of guarding against “voter fraud.”
“The State of Texas has a duty to voters to maintain the integrity of our elections,” the state's top Republican, Gov. Greg Abbott, said after issuing a recent proclamation aimed at Harris and Travis counties that forced them to shut down multiple drop-off locations for absentee ballots. “As we work to preserve Texans' ability to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take extra care to strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state."
Abbott’s nod to “ballot security” is in line with efforts by Republicans nationally seeking to cast doubt on the security of mail-in ballots even as they encourage their own voters to use them.
There are documented cases of voter fraud in Texas, including recent highly publicized arrests in Gregg County and Carrollton, but they are rare and have been small-scale efforts to manipulate local elections.
"Election fraud, particularly an organized mail ballot fraud scheme orchestrated by political operatives, is an affront to democracy and results in voter disenfranchisement and corruption at the highest level," Paxton said in a statement about one case.
Fraudulent efforts on a scale large enough to affect the outcome of a statewide or national election have not been discovered, experts point out.
Beth Stevens, a former voting-rights activist who is now a senior adviser for voting rights for Harris County, said it has tried to place itself on the "cutting edge of voter access" in the months leading up to the November election.
"That has absolutely resulted in backlash from state leadership that wants to undo or prevent access that Harris County is trying to create for all eligible voters and, in the process, confusing voters and suppressing votes," said Stevens, an attorney who took a temporary leave from her job as voting rights director for the Texas Civil Rights Project in July to work on elections in Harris County this cycle.
Hollins’ decision to hire Stevens was celebrated by Democrats, who view her as an ally in their efforts to increase voting accessibility and turnout.
"Hollins has shown that he really understands that anybody who can lawfully vote should be allowed to vote, and that voting should be easy and accessible, and I think that by appointing Beth, he showed a real commitment to that," said Nicole Pedersen, who spearheads the Harris County Democratic Party's voter protection efforts.
No. 3 on Hollins’ list for improving access was to "promote and maximize vote-by-mail within the bounds of the law."
Commissioners had already approved $12 million — tripling the budget for the 2016 elections — in April to help with mail-in voting expansion as voters became increasingly concerned about catching the virus at the polls and large Texas counties joined the call to expand mail-in voting.
In Texas, absentee ballots are available only to people age 65 or older, those confined in jail but otherwise eligible, people who are out of the county for the election period, and voters who cite a disability or illness.
The all-Republican Texas Supreme Court scuttled that vote-by-mail expansion effort in June. The court said susceptibility to the coronavirus could not in itself constitute a disability that would make a voter eligible for a mail-in ballot.
But the court also said that voters could decide for themselves whether their personal health histories, along with susceptibility to COVID-19, qualified under the disability provision.
In August, Harris County commissioners, along party lines, approved another $17 million to expand access to voting, most of it funded by a federal coronavirus aid package.
The county moved its election headquarters to a 100,000-square-foot space in NRG Stadium, home to the rodeo and the Houston Texans football team, and secured the Toyota Center, home to the Houston Rockets, as a drive-thru voting location.
For the first time in Texas, drive-thru voting was implemented in 10 locations.
Officials also increased the hours of several early voting sites and announced that six locations would be open 24 hours a day in the final days of early voting.
Election machines were added in districts that expected heavy turnout, and changes in technology promised no more delayed results — an ongoing headache in Harris for decades — or false waiting times.
Officials authorized 12 locations for voters to hand-deliver their mail-in ballots. In previous elections, only one drop-off point had been used.
Then Hollins announced plans in September to send mail-in ballot applications to the county's 2.4 million registered voters.
Chris Davis, the elections administrator for Williamson County, called Hollins' innovations "very impressive" and said he thinks other elections administrators will look to Harris County as an example if all goes well this fall.
“Personally, I like what I’m seeing," said Davis, who has served in leadership for the Texas Association of Elections Administrators. "He’s thinking outside the box, and maybe that’s what this kind of work needed.”
But by the time the county's effort began picking up steam, the political power struggle had already moved to the courts.
Fight from Republicans
For nearly every step it has taken, Harris County has faced opposition from state and Harris County Republicans. The most ground gained by the GOP has come in fighting efforts to expand access to mail-in voting.
With just three weeks to go before Election Day and early voting in Texas already underway, mail-in balloting remains the hottest flashpoint for the national GOP effort to raise concern over the integrity of the elections — and in Harris, the decisions and challenges mutate on a daily basis.
Paxton and others have insisted in court filings, as have GOP state lawmakers who have supported other measures limiting voters' options, that their efforts are not partisan but rather in the interest of election integrity.
Usually the target of criticism from Democrats, Abbott has also been sued by members of his own party over the steps he's taken to expand voting — an extra week of early voting and allowing early drop-off of absentee ballots — using his pandemic-era powers in the name of election integrity to tinker with election law in response to the tug-of-war in the courts.
In August, both the Harris County Republican Party and the Texas attorney general's office filed legal challenges to Hollins' plans to send mail-in ballot applications to every registered voter, arguing that it invited ballot harvesting and would encourage ineligible voters to put false information on their applications in order to qualify. Local officials had planned to include eligibility information with the mailers.
In September, a cadre of statewide Republican politicians and party leaders sued to stop Abbott's order allowing early voting to start a week early, on Oct. 13, to combat long lines and crowds during the pandemic. That lawsuit failed.
Days later, Hotze, members of the Harris County Republican Party, and a number of Republican officials and candidates asked the Texas Supreme Court to strike the early-vote expansion in Harris and limit the county's mail-in drop-off locations to one spot. That lawsuit was dismissed after Abbott effectively made the change with an executive proclamation, citing his emergency powers during the coronavirus pandemic.
On Oct. 1, a few days after Harris County opened its 12 locations for hand-delivering mail-in ballots, Abbott issued his proclamation limiting counties to one location, causing some of the state's strongest Democratic counties to shutter multiple locations and triggering legal challenges.
Harris County has already received nearly a quarter of a million absentee ballot requests. In addition to the influx, there also are concerns about delays from the U.S. Postal Service.
Court rulings over the past week affirmed Abbott's decision to expand early voting and blocked Hollins from a plan to send some 1.9 million unrequested absentee ballot applications to registered Harris County voters under the age of 65.
The Texas GOP unsuccessfully sued Harris County on Monday, fighting Hollins' work to expand access to curbside and drive-thru voting so that locals can cast their ballots from the safety of their cars, the latest in a long list of challenges to the county's efforts this summer.
Also this week, after much back-and-forth in court, Abbott was allowed to limit mail-in drop-off points to one location per county in a federal appeals court ruling — a battle that followed Harris County election officials' decision earlier in the summer to allow 12 drop-off points to make voting more convenient for hundreds of thousands of voters casting mail-in ballots.
Woodfill has filed a dozen petitions and lawsuits related to government action on the pandemic and the elections since May.
He and his clients oppose all election-law changes — particularly those pushed by the Harris County Clerk's Office and ordered by Abbott — that fall outside the scope of the Texas Legislature, which is majority Republican.
"He [Hollins] is really changing the whole system up to make it a lot more conducive to voter fraud, and you have to ask yourself why," Woodfill said.
Stevens said the county's efforts, even though some have been thwarted, will make a difference in turnout for this year's election.
"Despite all of the attempts to walk back and suppress the efforts that Harris County has taken to make sure that all voters have access, this will be more access than voters have ever had in Harris County, because of the initiatives that the clerk's office has put forward and that have been supported by county leadership," Stevens said. "So we're excited to see that unfold."
Disclosure: Prairie View A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.