Voter Frustrations in the First Primary of 2018

By: - March 7, 2018 12:00 am

Texas state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat, tries to reach officials to fix polling machines and allow constituents to vote at a community center in Houston. She, along with many other voters, had difficulty voting in the primary Tuesday.

Godofredo A. Vasquez/Houston Chronicle

As voters in Texas went to the polls in the first primary of 2018 Tuesday, some faced malfunctioning voting machines and long lines, leaving many concerned ahead of November’s midterm election.

At more than a dozen voting locations in Harris County, which encompasses the large Houston area, an increase in turnout among both Democratic and Republican voters and a series of technical problems caused issues for voters across the county.

One polling location delayed opening by 90 minutes because e-poll books were not working, while another polling location had just one voting machine because there weren’t enough electrical outlets. Some voters in the county waited more than an hour to cast their ballots, according to the Texas Election Protection Coalition, a partnership of civil rights groups.

State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, who Tuesday won the Democratic primary for a U.S. congressional race, called these problems “totally unacceptable.” Garcia herself waited more than an hour to vote.

“I am fine with new technology, but it’s got to work,” she told local ABC affiliate KTRK. “I hope that they tested it. I don’t know that they did, but these are some of the questions we will be asking, ’cause this isn’t over.”

At other precincts, confusion over party affiliation led poll workers to turn many voters away, which one election judge said was “discouraging a lot of people from voting.”

Statewide, Democratic turnout for the Texas primary was the highest it’s been in 16 years, The Associated Press reports. Turnout among Republicans was also up, according to The Washington Post.

County officials for the Democratic and Republican parties downplayed the severity of these issues to the Houston Chronicle, however. There were other reports of issues in Dallas and Austin.

The problems from Tuesday “are not isolated incidents, but the result of long-standing problems,” the Texas Election Protection Coalition said in a statement as polls closed.

Zenén Jaimes Pérez, the communications director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said these issues are due partly to the size of Harris County — there are more than a thousand polling places. But the problems are also systemic, he said.

The Houston area has seen these issues before. During the 2016 presidential election, several voting locations had malfunctioning voting equipment and long lines. At Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college west of Houston, voters waited as long as three hours in line.

Further, the Texas Civil Rights Project at the time said voters in predominantly black areas saw their voting locations changed at the last minute during the 2016 presidential election, causing widespread confusion and leading many voters to visit as many as three polling places before finding the right one.

While Pérez said he does not have evidence to claim communities of color were disproportionately affected by these issues, Stateline reporting has shown people of color are more likely to get stuck in long voting lines and wait longer to vote than whites even as, nationally, voting lines have gotten shorter. Houston, the country’s fourth-largest city, is 45 percent Latino and 22 percent black.

Harris County officials said after the 2016 presidential election they would add more equipment and staff in future elections.

With several competitive congressional races, including what is already becoming a boisterous U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Ted Cruz and Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, enthusiasm is high across the state ahead of the November midterms. But before this election, and the primary runoff May 22, voting rights activists are concerned some of the issues voters faced this week won’t be resolved on time.

Many of these issues have broken the trust that some voters have in officials’ ability to run a smooth election, Pérez said.

“It wasn’t a secret that there was going to be a big turnout in this election,” he said in an interview. “But we still had voters unable to cast a ballot.”

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.