When Democrats complain about voter disenfranchisement, they usually refer to the many Republican-led attempts to restrict voting by mail, purge voter rolls, and close polling places in minority communities. But in Democratic-controlled Harris County, the March 3 primary was a blue-on-blue debacle. Democratic primary voters in several predominantly minority neighborhoods were forced to wait as many as six hours in line to cast their votes, largely because of decisions made by county clerk Diane Trautman, a Democrat.
In Harris County, the Republican party refused to share voting machines with Democrats, leaving the county clerk, who has expansive authority to conduct local elections, to decide how to allocate them. Because only the Democrats had a contested presidential primary race, Trautman should have foreseen that their turnout would be higher—328,000 Democrats ended up going to the polls in March, compared with 196,000 Republicans—yet she allocated an equal number of machines for each party’s voters at every polling location. This meant that in heavily Democratic precincts such as Houston’s Third Ward, Democratic voters were forced to stand in line for hours while Republican voting machines went virtually unused.
“This was the worst voting experience I’ve ever had,” Bryan Escobedo, a voter who waited four hours in line at Texas Southern University, in the Third Ward, told the Houston Chronicle. Trautman defended her decision by saying it was only fair to provide the same number of voting machines to each party, but her performance was roundly criticized. (A feature on the clerk’s website meant to track the wait at polling places instead directed would-be voters to already overcrowded locations—another major failure.) Two months later, Trautman resigned, just sixteen months into her tenure, citing health concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic. That cleared the way for the Harris County Commissioners’ Court to choose an interim county clerk to oversee the primary runoff and November 3 general election, when a full-time clerk will be elected.
The person the commissioners chose for the interim position, 34-year-old Houston attorney Chris Hollins, was an unconventional pick. A fifth-generation Texan with a law degree from Yale and an MBA from Harvard, Hollins had never held public office and spent the previous six years working as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company. Despite having never administered an election, Hollins quickly rolled out a series of reforms, including mailing absentee ballot applications to every registered voter age 65 or older. That made the July 14 election, even with its record-setting runoff turnout of 225,000 voters, one of the smoothest Harris County has experienced. (Governor Greg Abbott’s decision to extend the early voting period by five days likely helped increase in-person voting too.) But the true test of Hollins’s short tenure will be the November 3 general election, which is expected to see the biggest turnout in Harris County history—experts forecast that as many as 65 percent of eligible voters will cast ballots—while also coming in the middle of a pandemic in a county currently at the highest threat level for COVID-19.
Hollins is determined not to oversee a repeat of March 3. “Our approach is pretty simple—we believe that voting is paramount to our democracy,” he recently told Texas Monthly. “It’s important that voters are able to cast their votes safely, but also to do so conveniently and with the peace of mind of knowing that their votes are going to be counted. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to do everything in our power to ensure those outcomes.” Most controversially, Hollins wants to mail absentee ballot applications to all registered Harris County voters of any age—a move now being challenged in court by Attorney General Ken Paxton. (Paxton did not respond to a request for an interview.)
Hollins has embraced a series of ideas long championed by election activists. He’s tripled the number of early voting locations from the 2016 presidential election, allowed for 24-hour voting at some, and helped recruit around 12,000 election workers, who will be paid $17 an hour. By contrast, Harris County hired around 6,000 poll workers for the 2016 presidential election at $9 an hour. Of course, these efforts cost money—the Harris County Commissioners’ Court has given Hollins a $29 million budget to administer the election, about seven times the cost in 2016. A big part of that expense is purchasing personal protection equipment for both election workers (face shields, masks, and gloves) and voters (sanitizing wipes and “finger condoms” that will protect them when they use touch screens on voting machines). Early voting in Texas runs from October 13 to 30. (The state GOP chair Allen West and other prominent party members are suing Abbott for extending the early vote period by six days.) The deadline to register to vote is October 5.
Perhaps Hollins’ most intriguing innovation is the introduction of drive-through voting, which he tested in the July 14 primary runoff. For the general election Harris will operate ten drive-through centers spread across the county. Voters will pull up to a station, where a poll worker will check their identification before handing them a portable voting machine, an iPad-like device that has been removed from the regular machine assembly. Between each vote, poll workers will disinfect the devices. “Imagine pulling into a Sonic,” said Elizabeth Lewis, a communications officer at the clerk’s office. (You can watch a demonstration video here.)
Officials in other large Texas counties have considered similar reforms, but have failed to match Harris County’s determined efforts to overcome obstacles to implementation. In August, Bexar County leaders recommended 24-hour voting centers and drive-through voting, but local elections administrator Jacque Callanen has declined to implement them, citing lack of staff and the close proximity poll workers would have with voters in cars. Williamson County elections officials say they failed to find suitable drive-thru locations with easy access, outlets for voting machines, and protection from inclement weather.
No other large county has embraced Hollins’s plan to mail ballot applications to each of his county’s registered voters. Attorney General Paxton, in his lawsuit against Hollins, argues that it would violate state election law, would confuse voters, and would lead to potential voter fraud. “Instead of protecting the integrity of our democratic process, the Harris County Clerk decided to knowingly violate election laws by preparing to send over two million ballot applications to many Texans who do not qualify and have not requested to vote by mail,” Paxton said in a statement.
The Texas Supreme Court has issued a stay temporarily blocking Hollins from mailing out the ballot applications while the case makes its way to a hearing on the merits. In the meantime, Hollins has gone ahead and mailed ballot applications to all Harris County residents 65 and older, who are permitted by law to vote by mail.
Voters in Texas’s largest county seem determined to cast a ballot this November, come health risks or high water, according to research conducted by Rice University political scientist Bob Stein. In August, Stein surveyed nearly six thousand registered voters in Harris. More than a quarter of respondents said they didn’t cast a ballot in the July primary runoff because of concerns about COVID-19, yet the overwhelming majority planned to vote in the November election, with 74.8 percent planning to vote early, 22.6 percent planning to vote on Election Day, and just 2.6 percent not planning to cast a ballot. Generally, more survey respondents say they’ll vote than actually do, but when asked how the threat level from COVID-19 would affect their decision, only a handful of voters said it would deter them—3.1 percent said they wouldn’t vote if Harris County remains at Level 1, its highest level, compared with 1.5 percent if the threat were minimal.
“These people are going to vote, regardless of whether the county is at Level 1,” Stein told Texas Monthly. “Particularly with minority voters, they’re acutely aware of what their risk is. Yet they’re committed to voting.”
Hollins is only the interim clerk—Harris County voters will choose his replacement on November 3 in a contest between former clerk Stan Stanart, a Republican, or Democrat Teneshia Hudspeth, the chief deputy of the Harris County Clerk’s Office. “I’m not going to get multiple bites at the apple,” Hollins said, “so we’re not wasting any time saying, hey, we’ll do [these reforms] next election. We think this should be done now.”