Election 2020

TSU Voters Waited Hours To Cast A Ballot On Super Tuesday. Harris County Says It Won’t Happen Again

Here’s what’s happening in the Houston area to fix old problems and prevent new ones on Election Day.

Texas Southern University celebrates the first day of early voting.

This month, the Texas Southern University marching band helped kick off early voting at the historically black campus, leading hundreds of students and faculty to the university's polling location.

The event was meant to encourage young voters to cast their ballot.

"On a campus such as this one with a bunch of millennials who need to cast their vote, it's their time to show what their civil rights and duties are all about," TSU student Igor Vouffo said

For many reasons, it's harder to vote in Texas than in any other state in America. Look no further than TSU itself, where on Super Tuesday some voters waited in line for six hours to cast a ballot.

During the primary election in March, one voter, Hervis Rogers, waited in line to cast his ballot at TSU until after 1 a.m.

He was the last person in the state of Texas to cast a ballot.

"It is insane, but it's worth it," Rogers said at the time. "It might make a difference."

But early voting ends Friday, and Election Day is Tuesday. And a question remains: will Harris County voters see those lines again?

Election officials insist the answer is no.

County Clerk Chris Hollins said his team has fixed the problem that caused delays on Super Tuesday, which he called an issue around machine allocation.

The county tripled the number of voting machines at TSU alone, while other polling places will see 50% more voting machines now.

There are more locations, too, Hollins said.

"We’ve tripled the number of voting centers that we have in Harris County from just over 40 in 2016, to over 120 this year," Hollins said. "And that's just to accommodate the massive inflow of voters that we're expecting."

All of this expansion is no accident. Harris County scaled up, investing $31 million in running the election this year — more than seven times what the county spent in 2016. Most of it can be reimbursed with federal CARES act funding, Hollins said.

Exacerbating the problems at TSU was another voting obstacle: Harris County voting machines are programmed to shut down at midnight. While it’s typically not a problem, Super Tuesday voters were still in line to vote at midnight, prompting a late night visit from Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who showed up to make sure no one was turned away.

In this election season, it’s a near certainty that there will be people voting around midnight. The polls are open for 24 hours beginning Thursday through the end of the early voting period on Friday.

Hollins said the machines are ready to handle the overnight technological challenge.

"We’re aware of that. Outside of 24-hour voting, we don’t expect that anyone’s going to be in line at midnight, ever," Hollins said.

But if it happens, Hollins said they have a plan.

"If we do see a long line that's stretching toward midnight, we will have extra resources available to those voting centers to ensure a smooth operation," Hollins said.

Texas election officials aren’t just solving existing problems. There are also new problems that come with a global pandemic — like what happens if thousands of people need emergency ballots because they have the coronavirus.

In the past 11 days, Harris County alone has reported more than 7,000 new cases.

Before Oct. 23, voters who received a COVID-19 diagnosis could apply for a mail ballot by simply saying they’re sick.

But voters diagnosed after the mail ballot application deadline will need to obtain a doctor's note to get an emergency ballot. It's a rule that was unsuccessfully challenged in Texas, one of several ongoing election lawsuits that have been working their way through the courts.

Ryan Cox, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said that distinction is a major burden on voters who are sick.

"It treats voters very differently just based on this arbitrary date of when they actually got a diagnosis," Cox said.

That's why the voting rights group MOVE Texas has launched a telemedicine hotline where volunteer doctors can help callers get an emergency ballot.

A lot of people could need it.

"In this 11-day period between the mail-in ballot deadline and Election Day, there's as many as 50,000 Texans that are going to get a positive COVID diagnosis in that window," Cox said.

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