Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Harris County Court Order Leaves Election in Balance

A district court judge and the Texas Supreme Court issued opposing rulings that left many confused about voting rules. The Texas county’s election results could hinge on whether ballots cast after 7 p.m. will be included in the final tally.

(TNS) — Tight races in Harris County, Texas, where around 1 million votes will be tallied, could hinge on whether ballots cast after 7 p.m. will be included in the count, after an Election Day filled with glitches and uncertainty for voters and poll workers alike.

Harris County District Court Judge Dawn Rogers signed an order keeping all county voting sites open until 8 p.m., only to have the Texas Supreme Court stay her order just in time to create confusion at voting locations letting voters arrive late.

In a three-sentence order, the court said voting "should occur only as permitted by Texas Election Code." The high court also ruled that votes cast in the final hour should be segregated. That means those votes can't be counted until the court issues a final ruling.

That ruling could be critical in the event that certain county races, including the hard-fought battle for county judge between Democratic incumbent Lina Hidalgo and Republican challenger Alexandra del Moral Mealer, are close enough to be decided by those set-aside votes.

"Every single vote counts," said Laila Khalili, a director at the voter engagement group Houston in Action. "Some elections can be won by just a couple of votes."

As of midnight, officials had released results from 103 of the county's 782 voting precincts, or 13 percent of the Tuesday polling places. Combined with early and mail-in voting, the total number of ballots scanned by Wednesday was 776,358, with hundreds of thousands still untallied.

The request to keep the polling sites open late was made by the Texas Organizing Project, Texas Civil Rights Project and ACLU of Texas, citing what they said were late election location openings and poor planning that disenfranchised some voters.

"These delays have forced countless voters to leave polling places without being able to vote," the groups said.

Harris County was unable to estimate or confirm how many votes were cast after the typical 7 p.m. cutoff that allows for anyone in line by that time to cast a ballot.

Voters who arrived between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. cast a provisional ballot, according to the county attorney's office. Some voters, later in the evening, complained that election workers even denied them that option, as the Supreme Court stay was broadcast to the 782 polling locations.

Roughly 10 people who arrived to the BakerRipley polling location in Houston's East End were told they weren't able to vote because they arrived late.

"It's upsetting," East End voter Melanie Driver said, concerned that it may prevent some from voting in the future. "You'll have some people that'll say, 'What's the point?'"

From the moment polls opened at 7 a.m., election officials encountered problems. At some locations, precinct judges reported a lack of the specially formatted paper used in the voting machines, though the extent of the problem was unclear, Election Administrator Clifford Tatum said.

"I have staff in the field at this very moment delivering paper to any location that's requested," Tatum said in the early evening. "We've been delivering paper throughout the day, and we should see that that's not an issue for voters standing in line."

Noting that many of the precincts that ran low were in Republican areas, Harris County GOP Chairwoman Cindy Siegel quickly cried foul.

"From our standpoint," she said, "it seems there was an attempt to make sure there were not enough ballots at Republican polls."

The problem also extended into some Democratic voting precincts. Alex Solis, presiding judge at Mandarin Immersion Magnet School near the Galleria, said his location ran out of paper ballots "for a few minutes" around 4 or 5 p.m. but soon received more from county staff. Long lines extended out the door throughout the day, he said, but only a few voters trickled out of the school shortly after 8 p.m.

"Everything's been swamped," he said. "We're trying to help as many voters as we can."

At various precincts, however, the long lines may have been enough to scare voters away.

"If we hadn't had those hundred-person lines, we probably would have had many more voters," said Jack Vaughan, presiding judge at West University Place Community Center. "Because a hundred-person line with people saying they've been waiting two and a half hours to vote is a deterrent to voters. If there's anything that may have caused people not to vote today in West University Place, it would've been those long long lines in the heat. We had a couple people we brought in because it looked like they were suffering from heat exhaustion."

The issues at the polls delayed what was already expected to be a slow counting process. Even if all went perfectly — something that has not happened in Harris County this millennium — reading the 782 digital drives two at a time because the county opted to buy only a pair of collection machines would take until roughly 2 a.m., Tatum has been warning.

"We just need our voters to know that simply because all the results aren't in before midnight doesn't mean that there's something wrong," Tatum said last month.

Tatum, at points during the day juggling two phones as he took calls from constituents about issues at polling places, called most of Tuesday's issues routine, with a "few struggles."

"That's part of the process," Tatum said. "We need to plan for the worst and be prepared to respond. It just took a little bit of time to get it straightened out."

Curbside voting in Acres Homes led to a long line of cars, with some voters giving up and heading inside or trying other locations.

Carmen Jones, 52, spent more than an hour waiting in her car to vote. She had recently undergone knee replacement surgery and couldn't stand in line. She wasn't fazed by the technical issues, saying she expects such problems on Election Day.

"I'm going to sit in my car all day," she said. "However long it takes me to get it done."

The Rev. Jerome Nickerson said he's "angry and frustrated" that his community voting site, Kennedy Elementary School, didn't have signs marking it as a voting location Tuesday morning.

"First of all, (senior voters) couldn't find which door to go in," Nickerson said.

Watchdog organization Common Cause said it was alerted about several isolated "acts of intimidation" across Texas, including in Harris County. Most instances of concerning behavior in Harris County consisted of aggressive electioneering outside the 100-foot boundary line, said Voting Rights Project Manager Katya Ehresman.

The ballot itself frustrated some voters. Harris County's long list required two pages because all Texas ballots must be backed up with a printout — and a lengthy series of choices and touch screen taps to make it through the races.

"Having each individual vote on the screen, as opposed to having multiple options on the screen, would have been daunting for me if I weren't prepared to vote for all of the (criminal court) judges," said Amy Klam, 47, who voted at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center.

The drudgery of dozens of selections made some pine for the previous system that allowed straight-ticket voting, where voters could click one box to choose all the Republicans or Democrats on the ballot.

"It made it much longer," said Khali McDaniel, 25, outside his Humble voting spot at Park Lakes Elementary School. "Most people know, 'Hey, I'm voting all this or all that.' "

Midday at Foster Elementary School in Kingwood, as election officials grappled with technology glitches, voters patiently waited in the warm sun.

Gail Plumberg said her 20-minute wait didn't faze her.

"It's just your civic duty," she said.

(c)2022 the Houston Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Special Projects