No Texas county experienced more voting problems on Super Tuesday than the state’s largest: Harris County, which comprises Houston. Some voters waited as long as six hours there to cast a ballot. As The Houston Chronicle reported, a county website failed to update in real time, sending hundreds of voters to already crowded countywide voting centers. But the locations of those centers, which are a relatively new addition to Harris County, plus a decision to give both Democratic and Republican parties the same number of voting machines, may have led to the long lines.
The county’s top election official, Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, says problems at the polls were exacerbated by record turnout, and the lack of a joint primary. Joint primaries are elections during which both parties’ voters use the same polling locations and balloting equipment.
“You could almost call it a perfect storm,” Trautman says.
Trautman says her office encouraged Democrats and Republicans to hold a joint primary. She says that at a mock primary demonstration last year, the party election officials who participated agreed a joint primary would be the best solution.
“The Harris County Democratic Party agreed that was best,” she says. “Unfortunately, the Harris County Republican Party refused. And in Texas, the primaries are run by both parties, so they must agree.”
Without an agreement, Trautman says, voting centers were turned into shared locations, in which each party’s voters wait in separate lines and use separate voting equipment.
“Both of those lines of machines could only be programmed for one party or the other,” Trautman says. “So you couldn’t use each other’s machines.”
Trautman says countywide voting makes it impossible to predict how many people will vote in each primary, at any given location, so the county clerk’s office chose to allocate equal numbers of machines to each party at each location.
“We did deliver additional equipment to the Democratic locations that requested it throughout the day,” Trautman says. “That was about four locations out of 101.”
Trautman has received criticism that the long lines at Houston polling places disproportionately affected communities of color. She says that soon after she took office in 2019, she added a polling location at Texas Southern University, where the student body is predominantly African American.
“From looking at the numbers during early voting at TSU, the average per day was about 50 voters, and I think one day was even zero voters,” Trautman says. “So it would have been very hard to predict that we would have the turnout we did on Election Day and night.”
Trautman says Harris County will have 750 polling locations for November’s general election. The county plans to purchase more equipment, and to meet with community members about how to improve voting access.
“We’re also going to work on more outreach about early voting,” Trautman says.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.