Texas: Why minority neighborhoods had to wait hours to vote

Many Texas voters endured long lines on Super Tuesday because of closed or clogged polling stations. The struggle points to a long history of uneven election administration and the importance of access for democracy.

Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle/AP
"I can remember when I did not have the right to vote," said Nancy Glenn Griesinger, second from right, when asked why she waited so long in line to vote on Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020, at Texas Southern University in Houston.

The frustrations began early for Ahmed King as he wandered Houston trying to cast his ballot in Texas' Democratic primary.

The radiology technician found four of the usual polling places in his predominantly African American neighborhood closed or clogged with people waiting in line Tuesday. He eventually drove 15 miles to vote in a white and Hispanic neighborhood under a new system that allows Harris County voters to cast their ballot at any polling location in the county.

"I first tried to vote at 1 p.m. CST and finally got done at 6:05 p.m.," he said. "I have never had an experience like this."

Mr. King had plenty of company. Long lines snaked out of Houston polling places, with many waiting more than an hour and some for several hours in mostly minority, Democratic neighborhoods. Lines in mostly white, Republican neighborhoods were shorter.

Democratic county elections officials and local Republican leaders cast recriminations Wednesday over who was to blame for the fact that some people in Texas' largest and the nation's fourth-largest city only voted after the state's biggest Super Tuesday races had been called.

There were lines in other parts of the state, including long ones in heavily Democratic Travis County, home of the state capital of Austin. But those in Houston stood out to James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

"What I make of them is another chapter in a long history of uneven election administration in Texas," Mr. Henson said. "Pretty clearly something went wrong, but partisan predispositions are kicking in immediately in explaining what went wrong."

The numbers of polling stations across Texas has been steadily dropping, with hundreds closing since 2012, disproportionately impacting minority neighborhoods, The Guardian reports:

In 2012, there was one polling place for every 4,000 residents. By 2018 that figure had dropped to one polling place per 7,700 residents. A 2019 paper by University of Houston political scientists found that after the county's transition to vote centers, more voting locations were closed in Latinx neighborhoods than in non-Latinx neighborhoods, and that Latinx people had to travel farther to vote than non-Hispanic whites.

A Guardian analysis based on that report confirms what many activists have suspected: the places where the black and Latinx population is growing by the largest numbers have experienced the vast majority of the state's poll site closures.

Harris County elections officials blamed the long lines on the local Republican Party's refusal to hold a joint primary with the Democrats. But the GOP said election administrators' allocation of an even number of voting machines to each primary disregarded warnings that an even split would cause problems in places where the hotly contested Democratic race was likely to draw more voters.

The county's elections director, Michael Winn, told The Associated Press Tuesday night that Republicans "would have cried all the way to Washington, D.C., to complain about disenfranchisement" had the county given Democrats more machines. Officials eventually sent "reserve machines" to some polling places with long lines Tuesday.

In August 2019, Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson declined to hold a joint primary, telling County Clerk Diane Trautman, a Democrat, in a letter that both parties voting together would increase delays, confusion, conflict, and cost.

He said Wednesday that the GOP had supported putting a different number of machines for each party at different polling places and blasted election officials for trying to "shift the blame from their own incompetence and failure."

Hervis Rogers spent more than six hours in line to finally cast the last ballot at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday at Texas Southern University, a historically black school in Houston. Mr. Rogers said he was late for his overnight job and he thought about leaving, "but I was telling myself, 'Don't do that.'"

"The way it was set up, it was like it was set up for me to walk away," Mr. Rogers told reporters after leaving the polling station. When asked why he didn't leave, Mr. Rogers replied: "Every vote counts."

Part of the issue is that Texas leaves much of the administration of elections to local governments, creating different systems across the state's 254 counties. The state sets laws and the secretary of state provides guidance, but many election decisions are left to county officials and the parties.

"Texas is one of the more dispersed election systems," said Wendy Underhill, who analyzes election policy at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

By contrast, in some states such as neighboring Oklahoma, state officials make most of the decisions and local officials carry them out. Ms. Underhill said that nationwide, parties generally do not have a ton of say in how primaries work. But they run primaries and caucuses in a handful of states with smaller populations: Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Nevada, North Dakota, and Wyoming.

Mark Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University, said the long lines in Houston were caused by Tuesday's races having the highest turnout Harris County has seen since its adoption last year of a system that allows people to vote at any county polling place.

"I think most of it is hiccups of a new system," Mr. Jones said.

This year's primary saw 321,000 Democrats cast ballots in the county, a 44% jump from the 2016 presidential primary. Mr. Jones said it's difficult for election officials to predict who will vote where and that the lines in African American communities could be explained by black voters tending to favor the party that saw higher turnout.

Democratic state Rep. Celia Israel, a member of the Texas House Elections Committee, is banking on record turnout in the fall election to flip the Texas House. She said the long lines are both encouraging and alarming.

County election administrators are "doing the best they can with the resources that they have," she said. "We all need to sound the alarm so we don't have a disaster this November."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Mr. Bleiberg reported from Dallas and Mr. Spencer from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. AP writers Paul J. Weber in Austin, Texas, and Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, contributed to this report. Material from the Guardian was used in this report. 

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