Miguel Valencio was still wearing his fireproof coat and welding helmet, which conveniently doubled as a face mask, when he arrived at the Kashmere Gardens Multi-Service Center around 1 a.m. to vote. The forty-year-old engineer who works in the Houston Ship Channel for an oil-field services company had not been particularly enthusiastic this summer about casting a ballot for Joe Biden. But then, in early October, Governor Greg Abbott angered him by issuing an order that limited Harris County’s 4.7 million residents to a single location to drop off mail-in ballots. He grew determined to send a message by exercising his right to vote in person.
“What I like about engineering is that you can’t manipulate the laws of physics and mathematics,” Valencio said. “As we’ve seen lately, election laws are not the same.”
Valencio’s vote in the early morning hours Friday was made possible by Harris County clerk Chris Hollins’s decision to keep eight polling locations open for 24 hours, from Thursday morning through Friday morning, rather than closing at 7 p.m. as they have the rest of the early voting period. During the extended period, 10,250 Houstonians voted, adding to what had already been record-breaking turnout in the county. For many voting at the eight sites on a frigid October morning, when temperatures plummeted into the low 50s—a deep freeze, by Houston standards—the primary motivation for showing up was simple: casting a ballot was finally convenient.
“I just got off work and I don’t have any time during the day,” said one woman, an employee of Metro, Harris County’s public transportation agency. She asked me to snap photos of her and her friend with their “I voted” stickers. Moments later, a woman with a baby on her hip ambled by, followed by a man who identified himself as a construction project manager who was too busy to vote during the workday. Some voters showed up in pairs, but the majority arrived alone, returning to their cars to warm up for a few minutes when the lines slowed. At one point around midnight, a technical glitch with polling machines caused a thirty-minute delay. No one drove off without voting.
The crowd at NRG Stadium, home of the Texans, was even larger at times, with voters still gathering in the cold, wind-swept parking lot at 2 a.m. An overworked Amazon delivery driver brought her friend to vote. A middle-aged teacher, still wearing her business-casual work attire, was desperate to go home and get some rest. And a white-haired boomer wearing an Alabama Crimson Tide cap and a pair of gym shorts looked like he’d just rolled out of bed. “This is great,” he said, before hopping into his black BMW and driving away. “I walked right in and walked out—no lines!”
Norre Citizen, a 21-year-old H-E-B employee who grew up in Houston, told me he had been thrilled to find out about the existence of 24-hour polling locations earlier that day when he saw a news clip while on break at work. “I was going to wait until the last minute, but I’m glad I’m here,” he said, adding that he voted for Biden. “The two most important issues for me are police reform and racism. As a Black man, I feel worried for the safety of my family and I want to see change.”
Around 2:30 a.m., a trio of Rice undergraduates hopped out of a pickup truck. They were there, they said, to experience the phenomenon of late-night voting. “Who knows when this might happen again?” reasoned Harry Golen, a Massachusetts transplant who said he feared the gradual dissolution of American democracy.
Norma Gonzalez was worried about the state of the country, too. I intercepted the 25-year-old as she walked toward her car around 3 a.m. and asked her what had prompted her to vote so early in the morning. She started with immigration policy before mentioning her concerns about Abbott attempting to suppress voting in Harris County. Like Valencio’s, her vote was an act of defiance. “I guess it’s important to show them we’re going to vote no matter what,” she said. “And if enough people come to this 24-hour voting location, next time it will be harder for them to take it away.”