HOUSTON – It was after 6 p.m. 20 Tuesday, when Hector Martinez came straight from work to a polling station near his home, flipped off the headlights and went in to vote.
Four years ago, the early polling station closest to his office closed most weekdays at 6 p.m. 17, making it impossible for Martinez to get there after his night shift as a maintenance worker. As a result, the settlement waited in line for almost an hour to vote on election day in 2016.
“This was a lot easier,” Martinez, 47, said Tuesday after voting in the Bayland Park Community Center in southwest Houston. “No line. No problem.”
Martinez, who voted for former Vice President Joe Biden in the presidential race, is among more than 1.2 million voters who have already voted in Harris County, which includes Houston, as of Wednesday night, nearly surpassing the fast-growing county’s overall turnout from 2016. Experts say the increase in voter turnout in the country’s third largest county will almost certainly benefit Democrats and may be the key to turning Texas from red to blue. And it shows what is possible when local officials make large investments to make it easier to vote.
In 2016, under Republican leadership, Harris County spent about $ 4 million to administer the election. After Democrats took control of every county across the country, officials increased the election budget to a staggering $ 31 million this year.
It has allowed election officials to triple the number of early polling stations in the county with 4.7 million inhabitants. They greatly expanded the voting hours so residents like Martinez could come after work. In the last days of early voting, some polls will be open 24 hours. And officials also opened 10 drive-through ballots across the county, allowing coronavirus-affected residents to cast ballots from the safety of their cars.
As a result, more residents of Harris County have voted early this year than ever before.
“What we see is that when you build it, they come,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top-elected official, who is the first woman and the first Latina to have the job. “We have learned that we can not blame the historical lack of voter turnout itself. It has been these obstacles. ”
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston, said those changes could have profound consequences for Tuesday’s presidential election. Voting shows an unusually tight race in Texas, with some election predictions now branding the once-solid Republican state as a throw-up. If Biden is to defeat President Donald Trump and become the first Democrat to win Texas since 1976, Rottinghaus said it will take an unprecedented turnout in major cities and suburbs like Harris County, the most populous county in the state.
“Harris County is at the forefront of democracy in Texas,” Rottinghaus said. “It must be a leading turnout to offset some of the Republican strongholds in rural areas. Basically, Texas will not turn around if Harris County does not have too much turnout. ”
He estimates at least 1.5 million voters need to turn up in Harris County for Democrats to have a fair shot at winning Texas. With two more days left of early voting, it is possible for the county to hit the total amount before election day.
“I mean, not to be a cliché, but elections have consequences,” Rottinghaus said, referring to 2018, when Hidalgo and other Democrats won county offices in Harris County. “And when you start making political changes that get people to participate more, you’ll see another type of voter come to the polls. So that’s exactly what we’re seeing. ”
Not everyone has welcomed the changes. Gov. Texas Republican Greg Abbott issued an order in October that counties be limited to just one absentee ballot, forcing 11 other locations across the vast Harris County to be closed. And the Texas GOP waged a failed legal battle to force Harris County to close its drive-through voting sites. Leading state Republicans also unsuccessfully sued to block Abbott’s order, allowing counties to add another six days of early voting during the pandemic.
Hidalgo pointed out that voters in Republican skewed areas of northern Harris County have also benefited from the changes.
“As far as our investment is concerned, it is simply a matter of participation for all voters,” she said.
The sweeping expansion of Harris County’s options followed embarrassing headlines just seven months ago during the Democratic primary here, with dozens of Houston voters stuck waiting in line for nearly six hours – some until 6 p.m.
Much of the credit for the turnaround has gone to Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, who was named to the post in June. Hollins, 33, a graduate of Yale Law School and Harvard Business School, assembled a team to investigate what went wrong in March and what it took to fix it.
This led to the plan to significantly expand early polling stations and hours and rely on data to better distribute voting machines to the areas with the largest turnout. In August, Hollins’ office called on 11,000 election workers to implement his ambitious plans. In what some experts have taken as a signal of voter enthusiasm in Harris County, more than 29,000 people searched.
“None of this works without people who are engaged,” Hollins said.
As they rolled out plans, Hollins was most concerned about finding ways to make it easier for people with difficult work plans to vote. Data show that a disproportionate number of Harris County residents turn out to vote after 6 p.m. 17, are Latino, possibly because they are more likely to work in service jobs.
Latinos have also historically been less likely to vote in Texas.
Therefore, from the beginning of Thursday, Hollins’ plan calls for eight of the county’s 122 early polling stations to remain open for 24 hours.
“It is to allow every single voter who needs it, whether they are shift workers at one of the factories or factories in the city, whether they are working in our Texas Medical Center to save lives during this pandemic, or whether they work at a grocery store that has shelves 2 or 3 in the morning, ”Hollins said. “We will give each voter the opportunity to cast their vote at a time that suits them.”
James Childress, 73, appreciates the effort. Late Tuesday night, he went to a polling station near his home and was able to vote within minutes. Childress, a black domestic worker at a veteran hospital, was relieved that he did not have to rush home after work to get in line, as he had to in previous elections.
“Nothing would stop me from voting this year,” said Childress, who voted for Biden. “But I’m glad the forces are working to make it a little easier for all of us.”