Democratic Voters Surge in Texas Primary, Waiting in Punishingly Long Lines as Officials Struggle to Keep Up

Grueling wait times stretched hours past closing time at polling locations across Texas. One voter in Houston waited nearly seven hours to cast his ballot.

The line to vote at 9:25 p.m. at Texas Southern University.
The line to vote at 9:25 p.m. at Texas Southern University. Allyn West

Grueling wait times stretched hours past closing time at polling locations across Texas. One voter in Houston waited nearly seven hours to cast his ballot.

The line to vote at 9:25 p.m. at Texas Southern University.
The line to vote at 9:25 p.m. at Texas Southern University. Allyn West
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One of the biggest and most disturbing storylines to emerge on Super Tuesday wasn’t about any top-of-the-ticket race, but rather the shockingly long wait times as some Texas polling locations struggled to keep up with increased turnout. 

According to the Associated Press, more than 2 million votes were cast in the Democratic primaries in Texas, an increase of over 45 percent compared to the last presidential election year. Voting estimates in Harris County and Dallas County show that Democratic turnout rose about 45 percent. In smaller counties with large student populations, there were surges in voter registration ahead of the primaries and massive turnout on Super Tuesday. Hays County, home to Texas State University, reported that votes cast for Democrats topped 25,000, up 79 percent over 2016. 

Statewide, fewer people voted in the Republican primary than four years ago: Votes cast declined roughly 30 percent compared to 2016, according to preliminary estimates by NPR and the Associated Press. But it’s impossible to tell how many might have crossed party lines to vote in the Democratic contests.

The line to vote at Texas Southern University. The voter cast their ballot at 1:30 a.m. after waiting for six hours.
The line to vote at Texas Southern University. The last voter cast their ballot at 1:30 a.m. after waiting for nearly seven hours.  Allyn West

The increased turnout led to long waits. On Super Tuesday, particularly grueling lines at some college campus polling places extended hours past the closing time (most Texas polls closed at 7 p.m., but anyone queuing by then was allowed to vote). Voters at one University of Texas library waited in line for several hours after polls were supposed to close. High turnout swamped the polling location at Texas State University in Hays County, where students recently fought to extend voting access on campus; one get-out-the-vote group supplied pizza, water, and snacks for young people waiting late into the night to vote on campus. 

A line of waiting Harris County voters stretched out the doors of Texas Southern University’s library when Allyn West, a Texas Observer contributor, arrived at 6:20 p.m. At 9:25 p.m., West snapped a photo of what looked like at least 50 people huddled together in a long line in the growing darkness, all “still maybe an hour from being inside the polling place.” Hervis Rogers, the last person to vote at TSU, Houston’s historically black college, waited in line for nearly seven hours. When he left the polling place at around 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Rogers told the Houston Chronicle he was heading to work, already late for his night shift. “I’m supposed to be there now.” The lines were long enough for an untold number of others to leave rather than cast a ballot

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, the county’s elections administrator and a Democrat first elected to the post in 2018, blamed the local Republican party for rejecting her plan for a joint primary, which she says would have allowed her to better allocate machines based on estimated turnout. According to the Chronicle, Trautman’s office sent an extra 68 voting machines to Democratic polls, including 14 to TSU, on election day. While Trautman hasn’t closed any polling places in Harris County, and in fact has tried to make voting easier, elections experts suspect poor planning and resource allocation added to the problems in Houston on Tuesday. The Texas Civil Rights Project says many of the polling sites with excessively long wait times in Harris County primarily serve black and Latinx voters.

Long lines add to the many barriers to voting that already exist in Texas, a state that has fought to uphold racially gerrymandered district lines and restrictive voter ID rules that the courts have repeatedly found disproportionately harm minority voters. While the state’s Republican leaders have balked at making voter registration available online or otherwise easier and stymied get-out-the-vote efforts targeting young people, officials in Texas have led the nation in shuttering polling places since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. According to a recent analysis by the Guardian, the vast majority of the state’s poll site closures occurred in places where the black and Latinx population is growing.

Whatever caused the long lines in Harris County and across the state, Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa urged elections officials to plan better for November. “Texas election officials need to do far better than having people wait in multi-hour lines just to cast a ballot,” Hinojosa said in a statement. “This year will see the highest turnout in Texas history with millions of new voters casting their ballots. We cannot have these long waits happen again in November.”

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