Expanded access on multiple fronts in Harris County gave those casting ballots the victory
Unprecedented access to the ballot in Harris County produced clear winners this election: Voters.
With more than 800 polling places, universal voting sites, a lengthened early-voting period, a three-day run of extended voting hours, a 24-hour voting day and drive-through voting, as well as efforts by activists to enfranchise eligible residents of the Harris County Jail, voters in the most populous county in Texas had more options than ever to cast ballots.
The efforts could have been undertaken simply for righteous reasons, but then came the urgency of the moment and protecting the health of voters amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Early voting alone in Harris County amassed an astonishing 1.4 million-plus votes, the highest numerical turnout in history. In 2016, the last general election, total voter turnout was 1.3 million.
But the expansion effort – initiated by elected Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who resigned in May because of an illness, and broadened by the ingenuity of appointed Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, both Democrats – wasn’t without legal challenges or controversy.
The fiercest opposition focused on invalidating ballots that were cast through drive-through voting, which was available at 10 polling locations. By the end of the early voting period on Oct. 30, 127,000 in-vehicle ballots had been cast.
In multiple lawsuits filed by Republicans, the drive-thru method was challenged as an illegal extension of curbside voting in filings that also sought to have votes cast under that method invalidated. Those cases were slapped down by lower state courts before the Texas Supreme Court ruled on Oct. 22 that the method could continue.
“The Court’s decision to uphold the legality of Drive-Thru Voting as a safe and convenient way to vote underscores that this November, democracy is on the ballot,” Hollins, a lawyer, said in a statement after the Texas Supreme Court ruling. “It is unprecedented to have such clear partisan politics attempt to undercut the voting operations of a single county – a county that has provided its electorate with more voting access than ever before.”
Sherea Cary, a Houston paralegal and graduate student who early voted for convenience at the drive-thru location at the Toyota Center with her mother and sister, became deeply concerned about their ballots when efforts to invalidate them began.
“It wasn’t all Democrats who voted in the drive-thru and they were willing to throw out all the Republican votes too,” she said. “It was the same basic process as what we do when we get out of our car and go into a building. All they did was bring me the big, gray tablet. I was able to vote the same as how I voted previously. We had a lot of people do it this way and we should do it again.”
Then, at the 11th hour this week, Republicans filed a federal case asking for the drive-thru method to be stopped on Election Day, which was denied by a U.S. District Court judge in Houston and a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel. The argument switched, in part, because of nuances in Texas Election law for early voting versus Election Day regarding the definition of a structure. Most drive-through sites had been a series of tents.
Out of an abundance of caution despite the federal court rulings, Hollins decided to shut down nine of the 10 drive-thru sites on Election Day, leaving only the Toyota Center, where drive-thru votes have been cast in a multi-level arena parking garage, as the only site.
Republicans did get their way on some issues. They blocked last-minute efforts to reverse the long-planned end of straight-ticket voting. That meant voters had to individually select the candidates of their choice and not simply pick everyone on one team. (Research shows one-punch tickets are more popular with Democrats and African Americans.) That made voting individual ballots take more time, sometimes contributing to wait times and long lines.
Expanded access, a decidedly partisan exercise in Texas, has been successfully challenged on a few scores: universal mail ballot applications and multiple drop boxes.
In August, Texas Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton, a Republican, sued Hollins about his plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in Harris County.
In October, the Texas Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the state Election Code doesn’t permit sending an application to a voter who has not requested one and prohibited the mass mailing.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order limiting mail ballot drop-off locations to one per county to “strengthen voting safety in Texas” and reduce voter fraud that eventually prevailed in the courts. Harris County, encompassing 1,777 square miles and the state’s largest by population, was set to have 11 drop boxes.
All the chaos sowed some confusion, but voters prevailed.
“The governor intended for us to have one box, which is crazy,” Cary said. “I think voting should be the easiest thing you are able to do and until we get this pandemic under control, let me keep my germs with me.”
On Election Day, more than 140,000 votes were cast in Harris County only a few hours before polls closed. Including early votes, turnout hit two-thirds of registered voters.
Despite knowing the overall validated outcome of every race on the ballot, including the presidential race, which could be weeks away, the winners have been determined in Harris County to be – the voters.