HOUSTON – It was after 8 p.m. on Tuesday when Hector Martinez walked straight from work to an early voting location near his home, turned off the lights, and went in to cast a ballot.
Four years ago, the early voting location closest to his office closed at 5:00 p.m. most days of the week, so Martinez couldn’t get there after his evening shift as a maintenance worker. As a result, the person waited in line for almost an hour to vote on Election Day 2016.
“It was a lot easier,” said Martinez, 47, Tuesday after voting at the Bayland Park Community Center in southwest Houston. “No line. No problem.”
Martinez, who voted for former Vice President Joe Biden in the President’s race, is among more than 1.2 million voters who cast ballots Wednesday night in Harris County, which includes Houston fast growing counties Total turnout as of 2016. Experts say the surge in voter turnout in the country’s third largest county will almost certainly benefit Democrats and could be key to getting Texas from red to blue. And it shows what is possible when local officials invest heavily in making voting easier.
In 2016, under Republican leadership, Harris County spent approximately $ 4 million on election administration. After the Democrats took control of every nationwide office, officials increased the election budget to a staggering $ 31 million that year.
This will allow election officials to triple the number of early voting sites in the 4.7 million population. They significantly extended voting times to allow residents like Martinez to come after work. In the final days of the early voting, some locations are open 24/7. In addition, officials opened 10 drive-through polling stations across the county so residents worried about the coronavirus can cast ballots from the safety of their cars.
As a result, more Harris County residents voted earlier this year than ever before.
“What we see is if you build it, they come,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s chief elected officer who is the first woman and Latina to hold the job. “We have learned that we cannot blame the voters for the historical lack of participation. It was these obstacles. “
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston, said these changes could have a profound impact on Tuesday’s presidential election. Polls show an unusually close race in Texas with some election forecasters Now the once solid republican state is being called a litter. If Biden beat President Donald Trump and becomes the first Democrat to win Texas since 1976, there will be unprecedented turnout in large urban and suburban communities like Harris County, the state’s most populous county.
“Harris County is the tip of the spear for Democrats in Texas,” said Rottinghaus. “It has to be a leading turnout to offset some of the Republican strongholds in rural parts of the state. Basically, Texas isn’t turning around unless Harris County has an oversized turnout. “
He estimates that there must be at least 1.5 million Harris County voters for Democrats to have a reasonable attempt to win Texas over. With a further two days before the early vote, it is possible for the district to reach this amount before election day.
“I mean, not a cliché, but elections have ramifications,” Rottinghaus said, referring to 2018 when Hidalgo and other Democrats won district offices in Harris County. “And when you start making policy changes that cause people to participate more, you will find that a different type of voter comes out to vote. So that’s exactly what we’re seeing. “
Not everyone welcomed the changes. Greg Abbott, a Republican from Texas, issued an order in October Limitation of the districts to only one delivery location for postal voting, closing 11 other locations in sprawling Harris County. And led the Texas GOP an unsuccessful litigation Forcing Harris County to close its drive-through polling stations. Leading State Republicans also unsuccessfully sued Block Abbott’s order to allow counties to vote six extra days early during the pandemic.
Hidalgo pointed out that voters in Republican boroughs in northern Harris County also benefited from the changes.
“Our investment is simply about the participation of all voters,” she said.
The major expansion of Harris County’s voting options followed embarrassing headlines during the Democratic primary just seven months ago, when dozen of Houston voters stood in line for nearly six hours – some of them until 1 a.m.
Much of the credit for the turnaround went to Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, who was appointed to the position in June. Hollins, 33, a graduate of Yale Law School and Harvard Business School, put together a team to investigate what went wrong in March and what it takes to fix the problem.
This led to the plan to significantly expand the locations and opening hours for early voting and to rely on data to better distribute voting machines to the areas with the highest turnout. In August, Hollins’ office called on 11,000 election officials to implement its ambitious plans. In what some experts have taken to be a sign of electoral enthusiasm in Harris County, more than 29,000 people applied.
“None of this works without people who are engaged,” said Hollins.
When it came to introducing the plans, what Hollins was most concerned about was finding ways to make coordination easier for people with difficult work schedules. Data shows that a disproportionate number of Harris County residents who show up to vote after 5:00 p.m. are Latinos, possibly because they are more likely to work in service professions.
Latinos have also historically been less likely to vote in Texas.
For this reason, Hollins’ plan from Thursday calls for eight of the county’s 122 preferred polling stations to remain open for 24 hours.
“This should enable each and every voter, whether they’re shift workers in one of the factories or factories in town, whether they’re working at our Texas Medical Center to save lives during this pandemic, or whether they’re working a grocery store that’s closed at two or three in the morning fills shelves, ”said Hollins. “We will give every single voter the opportunity to cast their vote at a time that suits them.”
James Childress, 73, appreciates the effort. Late on Tuesday evening, he went to an early voting location near his home and was able to cast a ballot in minutes. Childress, a black housekeeper at a veterans hospital, was relieved that he didn’t have to rush home after work to line up like the previous election.
“Nothing could stop me from voting this year,” said Childress, who had cast a vote for Biden. “But I’m glad the powers that be are working to make it a little easier for all of us.”