3 challenges facing Harris County's election office leading up to the November election

A voter shows up to vote at the Moody Park Community Center on election day in Harris County. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)
A voter shows up to vote at the Moody Park Community Center on election day in Harris County. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)

A voter shows up to vote at the Moody Park Community Center on election day in Harris County. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)

More than 224,000 ballots were cast over the course of the July 14 primary runoff elections in Harris County, more than double the number of ballots cast when primary runoffs took place in 2018, according to unofficial returns from the Harris County Clerk's Office. By the end of election day, about 9.5% of registered voters in the county had cast a ballot.

Renee Cross, senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs with the University of Houston, said the election seemed to go smoothly in Harris County overall. However, Cross said the high turnout during the runoffs—despite the coronavirus pandemic and the heat of summer—indicates turnout during the November general election could be one for the record books. More than 61% of the county's registered voters cast ballots in the November 2016 election, meaning the challenges presented by the pandemic in July elections this year could be amplified in November, Cross said.

"The difference in the amount of people voting when looking at the primary runoff versus the presidential election, it’s just so incredibly substantial," she said. "With all these extra restrictions we’ll have in place, it’s hard to plan on such a wide scale, especially for a county like Harris."

Here are three challenges Cross said the county needs to be keyed in on heading into November.

1. Finding enough poll workers to staff polling locations

The biggest challenge for the county, Cross said, is likely to involve finding poll workers to staff a number of polling locations that will need to increase dramatically for the November election. The county staffed a little over 100 polling locations during the July election, but Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins said he intends to operate between 800-1,000 polling locations in November, enough locations to keep lines reasonable and allow for social distancing.

Since poll workers tend to be older, falling into demographics more likely to be affected by the coronavirus, Cross said Harris County turned toward high school and college students to serve as poll workers in July, a tactic she said should be used again in November.

"I think Harris County does a good job particularly in reaching out to high school and college students, which will become even more important this November, but it's going to be challenging just because of the sheer number of poll workers needed in a county as large as ours," Cross said.

Researchers with Rice University surveyed 1,000 poll workers between March 27-May 4 on how they felt about working during the pandemic under various situations. The results found between 84%-86% said they were either very or somewhat likely to work a polling place if social distancing standards were adhered, voters were supplied with sanitized gloves and voters were separated from workers with plexiglass screens.

However, that survey took place prior to a surge in COVID-19 cases in hospitalizations in June and July, and it is unclear how poll worker attitudes might have changed because of those surges. In an election night briefing, Hollins said the clerk's office was planning to conduct its own survey of poll workers—as well as some voters—to learn about how things can be improved for November.

"I personally visited all early voting locations over past two weeks," Hollins said in the July 14 briefing. "We made changes and improvements on a day-to-day basis. Today they were the safest they have ever been, and when we move to the November election, they will be even safer."

2. Preparing for a substantial increase in mail ballots

Cross said the county will also need to prepare for a likely increase in mail ballots, including making sure the process is smooth for voters and making sure the county is able to process the volume. The Texas Tribune reported July 13 on issues some voters faced in submitting mail ballots, including roughly 4,600 voters in Travis County who incorrectly filled out their applications.

Hollins has encouraged all voters who are eligible to vote by mail, which he said serves dual purposes—lowering the risk of viral transmissions on election day and keeping lines from becoming unwieldy.

"People need to be voting from home," Hollins said during the July 14 briefing. "If you are eligible to vote by mail, that is the safest of any way to vote. If you are eligible, we encourage you to vote by mail in November."

Prior to the July election, Hollins sent out mail ballot applications to all voters on the rolls who were age 65 and older, the first time such an effort had ever been taken on. As a result, the number of absentee ballots cast nearly doubled from the primary elections in March.

Cross, who has been staying in her home in La Grange during the pandemic, said she and her husband applied for absentee ballots for the first time for the July elections. She said it took more than two weeks to receive her ballot, prompting questions about what happens to voters who are not planning to vote by mail but test positive for COVID-19 close to election day.

"Let’s say it takes two weeks to get a ballot, and this is during a primary runoff ... that not all people are engaged in, so that two weeks is probably going to be multiplied in November," Cross said.

Prior to election day in July, Hollins asked a state district judge to allow voters who recently tested positive but were unable to apply for a mail ballot to be allowed to vote online, which he argued would keep infected people from voting in-person. That request was denied, but Cross said it may come back up again before November.

"This sets up the foundation to try to do that way ahead of time for the general," she said.

3. Finding enough sizable polling locations

Going hand in hand with the challenge of finding enough poll workers to staff between 800-1,000 voting centers is the challenge of finding the voting centers themselves. This challenge is compounded, Cross said, by the fact centers need to be large enough to allow voting machines to be spaced out.

"If social distancing has to occur, we can’t have our booths right up next to each other the way they are traditionally, so finding locations that can have those booths spread out 6 feet apart while also being able to handle the increased volume on election day, that’s going to be difficult," she said.

Hollins said having enough polling locations in operation and enough machines at each location will be key to keeping lines from getting too long. Both Hollins and Cross also stressed the importance of having an extended early voting period in November, referencing the extra week of early voting Gov. Greg Abbott mandated statewide for the July election.

The challenge of keeping lines short could be further exacerbated by another factor, Cross said: the end of straight-ticket voting.

"If people are voting in person and they want to vote for all those offices, that’s going to take a while because we have a lengthy ballot," she said. "Educating people to be ready—to be able to go in, have your list ready and vote—is part of what the county and voters need to be thinking about."
By Shawn Arrajj
Shawn Arrajj serves as the editor of the Cy-Fair edition of Community Impact Newspaper where he covers the Cy-Fair and Jersey Village communities. He mainly writes about development, transportation and issues in Harris County.


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