Elections 2020Long Lines, Stacks of Mail, and High Expectations: Texas’ Voters and Elections Staff Weather Turnout Tidal Wave

Despite the early onslaught, Texas' election staffers have managed the wave of early voters and mail ballots and are now dealing with more manageable turnout.
October 22, 2020
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Early voting in Texas is underway and already 77 percent more votes have been cast than eight days into 2016’s early voting period. 

Overall, the 2020 early vote total thus far has eclipsed that of the entire 2016 early vote total.

This trend is not limited to Texas. Across the country, secretaries of state and county elections offices are awash with mail ballot requests, troubleshooting pleas, and a host of other issues.

The early voting period was extended a week by Governor Abbott to spread out foot traffic at polls. And the abnormally high initial turnout illustrates two things: first, there is more voter excitement this election even when compared to 2016, and second, many voters who would otherwise vote on Election Day have chosen to cast their ballots early.

Additionally, Texas has nearly two million more registered voters on the rolls than in 2016.

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Stephen Chang, Director of Communications for the Texas Secretary of State’s (SOS) Office, told The Texan, “So far early voting is going smoothly, and as of this morning, about 5.8 million Texans have cast a ballot by mail or early in-person.”

This voting tsunami has at times overwhelmed election offices across the state and the country, and it’s led to hours-long lines at polls and non-trivial instances of voter confusion. But by and large, the system has held up.

Polling station lines that wrapped around buildings popped up in some areas of the state last week on the first day of early voting. Two counties that experienced the biggest flood of voters were Harris and Denton counties.

Travis County announced last week that 90 percent of its eligible voter base is registered to vote.

But wait times in some locations spanned hours, illustrating the enthusiasm voters have this year.

Mail ballots cast thus far is 110 percent higher than at this point in 2016.

One county which felt a higher-than-normal early voting turnout was Galveston County. To-date, Galveston’s early voting turnout is 14 percent higher than the same point in 2016. But the mail ballot turnout is 61 percent higher.

Galveston County Clerk Dwight Sullivan told The Texan, “Voting is going very well even with the initial spike in early turnout.”

Nearly two-thirds of the 17,000 absentee ballots requested by Galveston voters have been returned. Lines on the first day of early voting reached 45 minutes long, but have all but subsided since, according to Sullivan.

He added that a third of registered voters have cast ballots in Galveston County thus far. In preparation for the election, the county expanded the number of polling locations it exhibits, both for Election Day and the early vote period.

Sullivan also pointed to weather as a factor to watch, saying, “If it rains next week and voters decide not to vote early and wait until Election Day, we may have more traffic on November 3 than we were expecting.”

Julie Anderson, a Bedford resident, had a similar wait as that in Galveston when she cast her ballot on the first day of early voting. “It was a completely different experience. I don’t remember having to wait this long since Reagan,” she told The Texan.

When asked what motivated her to brave the first day and the crowd that came with it, she said, “I think I just wanted to be part of the fray and to get it over with.”

According to Anderson’s conversations with others, the line wrapped around the building earlier that day at the Bedford Public Library. “The [voting] room was packed, and it was very loud just because of how many people were in there.”

But by the time she finished, the wait time had subsided some. Overall, Anderson had a positive experience, saying, “Everyone was friendly and pleasant, and the poll workers handled the rush well.”

Out in Fort Bend County, the early voting turnout will soon surpass that of 2016’s entirety. John Oldham, the county’s elections administrator, told The Texan, “The first day was rough with the large turnout also for a couple of unforeseen circumstances.”

Fort Bend opened their polls at 8 a.m. for early voting, an hour after neighboring Harris County had. And so, many voters assumed it’d be the same in Fort Bend, resulting in very long initial lines.

Another cause, Oldham mentioned, was kind of a “self-inflicted wound” as the administration calibrated the system it uses set with a start date of a normal early voting period of two weeks. They set it up early to get it done and over with. But then Abbott’s extension threw a wrench into that plan, and it took hours of manpower for the elections office to adjust on the fly.

Fort Bend has sent out over 37,000 mail applications, and only finished separating the approved from the denied on Wednesday. “The rush of mail ballot applications has caused a major strain on our office, but it has been managed,” Oldham added.

Voters who meet mail ballot qualifications may select an “annual” option that automatically enrolls them to receive an absentee ballot for the next election, sometimes without realizing that the automation begins immediately.

This can, however, create issues in itself. Especially among seniors over 65 who meet the most basic absentee stipulation, a checked “annual” box is easily forgotten. 

Leslie Duncan told The Texan of her experience with her parents who received a ballot in the mail but wanted to vote in-person.

Duncan’s parents, both in their 90s, are habitual in-person voters but requested an absentee ballot in the primary and were placed on a list to automatically receive mail ballots for the general election in Harris County.

For voters who receive a mail ballot to vote in-person, they must bring the ballot to the polling location for it to be voided by elections staff.

“The staff was very accommodating, taking us right to the front of the line and assisting us with voiding the mail ballots,” Duncan said. 

The voiding process is a safeguard against someone casting a vote both in-person and by mail, but it can confuse voters. While they were voting, Duncan said that at least 10 other people came in with the same issue — and one man had to leave and come back with the ballot, having been unaware he needed it.

If someone appears in-person to vote who has an outstanding mail ballot, their vote cast at the polling location will be counted as provisional until the county elections office verifies the mail ballot was not received.

Should the mail ballot be rejected for any reason, including a scenario in which a voter mistakenly voted by mail and in-person, the elections office must notify the voter within 10 days of the election — a procedure ruled to be permissible by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

A Harris County elections official confirmed to The Texan that their office waits until polls close on election day to verify the mail ballot voter in question did not also cast a vote in-person.

The more populous the county, such as Harris, the more of these situations the administrators will have to sift through, and the longer it will take.

Adding to the confusion, Harris County Interim Clerk Chris Hollins attempted to send mail ballot applications to every eligible voter under the guise of fear of coronavirus constituting a “disability” — a measure that was halted by the Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX).

Sullivan stated that early and mail votes are tabulated beforehand but are not loaded to the official results system until polls close on Election Day, but that front-end work saves a lot of time on the back end. “I think Texas will be relatively quick on conveying results thanks to the systems in place,” Sullivan stated.

Oldham and Fort Bend, meanwhile, employed a new voting system which has needed an adjustment period. “I am usually adamant about not implementing a new system in a general, but due to the pandemic we couldn’t really have a trial run and I made the decision to move forward with it to reduce physical contact.”

The new system is electronic and prompts voters to verify their address or select a party in a primary, a process that was previously done by poll workers. The system also allows voters to use a disposable stylus on their ballot.

Sullivan stated that for Galveston County the cause for delay is due to the length of the ballot — Galveston County has 23 separate contests on the ballot this year since local elections were moved from May to November — and the lack of straight-party voting as minor sources of confusion for voters.

“It’s a lot to navigate, especially with the new change of no straight-ticket voting, but it’s been mostly okay so far,” he continued.

One point of confusion for elections officials has been the seesawing court cases that have dotted the election landscape in Texas. An example occurred when a state court ordered the SOS to remove Green Party candidates from the ballot for a failure to meet the statutory requirements.

But that was overruled weeks later by SCOTX, causing election administrators to reverse course.

The uncertainty and inconsistency have strained preparations, but both Oldham and Sullivan managed to make do.

One of the top-down measures issued in the election has been that voters are not required to wear masks at voting locations. That order was issued by Governor Abbott.

In Galveston County, workers at one League City polling location attempted to require masks among voters, one of whom was County Judge Mark Henry, which resulted in a county-wide order prohibiting that practice even further.

Sullivan told The Texan he hadn’t seen any other incidents of such conduct, indicating the problem had been solved.

Even so, he maintains confidence in the systems and safeguards in place.

Due to Abbott’s expansion, early voting began on October 13 and runs through October 30. The final date mail ballot applications can be received is October 23. They must be received by the given county election office no later than November 4, and must be postmarked by 7 p.m. the day before.

Polls open at 7 a.m. on November 3 and close at 7 p.m.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.