Voter suppression: one Harris Co poll didn't open until 11:30am
Voters encountered an empty gym at the BakerRipley voting location on Navigation, when polls were supposed to open at 7 am. Photo by Houston Public Media.

Texas’ largest county is keeping polls open until 8 p.m. Tuesday – one hour later than usual – after several voting locations across Harris County opened late on Election Day.

The Texas Organizing Project requested the extra voting hour in a lawsuit filed against Harris County just after 5 p.m. A hearing was held shortly thereafter, with Judge Dawn Rogers of the 334th District Court saying at around 6 p.m. that she was “signing off on the order.”

Voters across Harris County, which includes Houston, can cast ballots at any of the county’s 781 open polling locations as long as they are in line by 8 p.m. Those who arrive after 7 p.m., when polls were originally scheduled to close, must cast provisional ballots.

“Today included a handful of late starts at various polling locations, most significantly at the BakerRipley location on Navigation,” the Harris County Elections Administrator’s Office said in a Tuesday night statement. “The additional hour provides voters with the opportunity to cast their ballot if they were unable to do so as intended this morning. We are reviewing the circumstances surrounding these late starts and will provide more information as soon as we’re able.”

The county elections office said those who vote provisionally during the extended hour will “place their paper voter record in a sealed provision ballot envelope instead of inserting into the scanning machine. All provisional ballots will be tabulated separately inside our Central Count station located at NRG Arena.”

Most polling locations in Harris County opened at 7 a.m. with reports of long lines due to minor technical issues at some of the nearly 800 polling locations across the county. Harris County election officials said by 11:30 a.m., all sites were online and functioning properly.

But the Texas Organizing Project filed its suit against the county over the delayed openings of multiple voting locations across the county, including the BakerRipley House on Navigation Boulevard, where polls did not open until after 11:30 a.m. Before Rogers made her ruling, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said through a spokesperson that his office would not oppose the request made in the lawsuit.

“… These delays have forced countless voters to leave polling places without being able to vote,” the Texas Organizing Project wrote in its legal filing Tuesday evening.

A judge in Bell County, which is between Austin and Waco, also granted an order Tuesday to keep polling locations there open until 8 p.m.

A polling place at Melrose Park Community Center in North Houston closed around midday Tuesday, the county elections office announced a little after 3:30 p.m., suggesting that voters there could instead cast ballots at the nearby Hardy Street Senior Citizens Center, 11901 West Hardy Rd. A City of Houston employee died Tuesday morning at Melrose Park in an unrelated, work-related incident, according to a statement released by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

One of the sites with issues Tuesday morning was the West Gray MultiService Center, where about 20 of the 60 voting machines weren’t working. Nadia Hakim, a spokesperson for the Harris County Elections Administrator’s Office, said they sent a technician over and were able to resolve the issue by 9 am.

“We are working through these issues as quickly as we humanly can,” Hakim said.

In the meantime, long lines started to form. Chuck Tanner arrived at West Gray at 6:30 am before the polls opened. He ended up waiting two hours to vote.

“I thought I’d get right in,” he said.

Not everyone wanted to wait.

David Harris also showed up to vote at the West Gray polling location, but decided to go somewhere else after seeing the line.

“It’s not moving,” he said. “We’re not giving up, we’re going to vote today. There’s a lot of important issues out there, so it’s imperative to get out there and vote.”

At the BakerRipley House voting location on Navigation, Ben Baron was third in line to vote, arriving just before 7 am to an empty gym.

“The tables were not set up, the machines were not set up, nothing was on. There was no way to intake the voters, and they didn’t really have any answers for us,” he said.

Baron said the polls had yet to open when he had to leave shortly after 8 am to make it to work.

“You need to be able to administer the polling location with integrity, promptness and professionalism. I didn’t really see that this morning,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a struggle to vote.”

Baron said he plans to try to vote again during his lunch break, though the whole experience so far has made him feel “profoundly disenfranchised.”

The polls didn’t open at the BakerRipley Navigation site until after 11:30 a.m.

Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum said there was an issue with the supply box and the judge not having the key to the machines.

“We sent technicians and supplies out to that location to help the judge set up. We then discovered that some of the clerks who were assigned to that location decided not to work today,” he said.

Tatum said those are issues they’ll look more into post-election.

“We have to control the things that we can, which means we need to control our supplies a little bit better. We need to control our access a little better,” he said. “And those are things that we’ll assess post-election to make sure we get it right the next time for the opening of the day.”

Elsewhere around the county, Hakim, with the Harris County Elections Administration, said there were issues Tuesday morning with the controllers – the machines that process the voters’ identity and access code – being down. There have also been issues with voting machines not powering up correctly, missing equipment, and judges and election workers not showing up, according to Hakim.

“We’ve been having techs out all morning,” she said.

Hakim said one of the bigger issues happened in Sunnyside, which was also an early voting location. Poll workers there didn’t correctly process the end of early voting, which caused problems Tuesday morning, according to Hakim.

“Instead of suspending the polls on the last day of early voting, they actually closed down the polls,” she said. “So rather than being able to easily get everything started today, we had to jumpstart the whole process, since it was closed down on early voting and not just suspended.”

Harris County election officials had warned of potential high wait times due to expected high turnout. Harris County also has the longest ballot in the state, with between 90-103 races on the ballot.

“It will take our voters roughly seven to ten minutes to vote a ballot, that’s if they’re prepared,” Tatum previously said.

On top of that, there are new voting machines and no straight-ticket voting.

Federal election observers are also in Harris County Tuesday observing the polls, following a request from local officials.

Local leaders asked for the observers after the Texas Secretary of State’s office said it would deploy monitors in the county and the attorney general’s office said it would also have personnel on the ground.

“State officials have shown that they can’t be trusted to be a good faith partner in Harris County’s elections. Their election ‘audit’ and subsequent decision to intervene in our elections was always about intimidating election workers, disrupting election processes, and undermining election results,” County Attorney Christian Menefee previously said in a statement.

Across the state, Texans are casting their votes for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, land commissioner and state comptroller, among other positions.

Locally, Harris County residents are voting on who the next County Judge will be, with Democratic incumbent Lina Hidalgo facing off against her Republican opponent Alexandra del Moral Mealer.

Both candidates showed up to the West Gray MultiService Center Tuesday morning to talk to voters. Later in the afternoon, Beto O’Rourke and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee also rallied voters.