Harris County shattered records this week for voter turnout, with more than 128,000 people casting ballots on the first day alone. Over 40,000 mail ballots have already been sent in.
Below, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins answers some questions about what Houston-area voters can expect in the weeks ahead.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are some changes your office has made to prepare for new challenges and some of the problems we’ve seen before?
We launched back in June the S.A.F.E. election plan, which was a collective of 23 separate initiatives to improve voting. Some of those changes are are big changes that you’ve seen, such as making sure that we have proper protective equipment and social distancing, introducing 24-hour voting, introducing drive-thru voting — for the first time in the history of Texas, we’re offering drive-thru voting here in Harris County. And we have 10 locations across the county, that any voter who wants to can vote from the safety and convenience of their vehicle.
But other things have been smaller and behind the scenes, like improving our recruiting and training. We have a record number of election workers this year, over 11,000. And we’ve improved processes to make voting more efficient so that voters can get in and out and safely get back to their families.
How do you think the elimination of straight-ticket voting will impact how long the voting lines could be this year?
We’ve estimated that it could take much longer for people to vote. In the past, if you were voting straight ticket, you could vote in one or two minutes. And now that same vote is estimated to take between 10 and 20 minutes. But you know, I’ve observed some in-person voting, and it hasn’t seemed to be a huge issue so far. I did have a single voter asked me how she could vote straight ticket, and I had to inform her that she’d have to vote the entire ballot. So we’re still needing to educate voters about that, but so far, I haven’t seen a huge issue.
There are so many challenges in place this year. Do you think that people should expect to have the unofficial election results available in Harris County on election night? Or should people be prepared for the idea that we may not have those official results until the next day or days?
Those unofficial results that Harris County voters are accustomed to seeing on election night, we look forward to delivering those on election night this year. It may be a long night, but you’re going to see the results of the Harris County election on election night.
Are the mail ballots that have been received included in the count on election night?
Yes, those are always reported along with early voting results, so you should see those in the 7 p.m. hour on election night.
Are you seeing an increase in how many Harris County voters are requesting mail ballots so far this year?
Absolutely. We’ve sent out over 235,000 mail ballots, which is well over double the number of mail voters back in 2016. And so there’s a lot of enthusiasm for voting by mail, especially amongst our seniors. We want people to be able to vote in the most safe and convenient way possible for them. And that is voting by mail if you’re eligible.
Some other states don’t require postage on their mail ballots, but in Texas, stamps are required. What do you want voters to know about postage for their ballots?
That’s confusing for a lot of folks, because frankly, some people have a shorter ballot, and some people have a longer ballot. On average, it takes two stamps. But for some people, it’s one stamp. For some people, it’s three or four. What we’re telling people is that it’s two stamps, generally speaking, but we’re making it clear that regardless of what you put on there, even if you put no postage at all, that’s going to be delivered to our office and we’ll foot the bill for you if we need to because we’re going to count your votes.