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Reps. Green and Green want investigation of voting machine shortage

I have three things to say about this.

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Two Houston congressmen are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether unequal distribution of voting machines and polling locations in Harris County disenfranchised minority voters during the March 1 primary election.

In a letter dated March 15, U.S. Reps. Al Green and Gene Green, both Houston Democrats, blamed insufficient voting machines and polling locations for “excessively long lines” in predominantly Hispanic and black precincts in Harris County. Citing local news reports, the congressmen indicated that long lines “deterred” minority voters from “exercising their right to vote that day.”

“The failure to distribute sufficient voting machines in predominantly Hispanic and African-American precincts in Harris County, in comparison to the resources made available in more affluent, predominantly Anglo precincts in the county, had a discriminatory impact on our constituents’ ability to participate in the political process,” the congressmen wrote.

[…]

The increased turnout — fueled by a heated Republican presidential race — left election officials scrambling to deliver additional voting machines to polling locations with long lines on election day. Still, some voters in Houston did not cast their votes until after 9:30 p.m. — hours after polls closed. Others reportedly abandoned their place in line without voting after waiting for hours.

The distribution of polling locations in primary elections is a responsibility of each county’s political party, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections and voting. Using a formula based on previous voter turnout, county parties are charged with estimating voter turnout and determining the number of voting machines and polling locations needed.

Individual county parties ultimately decide whether that estimate should be higher or lower depending on other factors, such as a contested presidential primary, said Alicia Pierce, a spokeswoman for the state agency

County and party officials estimated that about 144,000 voters would cast a Democratic primary ballot. But more than 227,000 Democratic voters made it to the polls for the primary election.

On the Republican side, officials estimated 265,000 voters would turn out but almost 330,000 voters actually cast a ballot.

Lane Lewis, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, pushed back on allegations of unequal distribution of polling locations, saying there was nothing “nefarious” behind the wait times.

The long lines were a result of higher than expected turnout, he added, and there was little indication from early voting figures that voter turnout would be so high.

1. The formula is based in part on “the percentage of voter turnout for the office that received the most votes in the most recent comparable party primary election”, which in this case would be 2012. I don’t think the initial estimates were terrible at the time they were made, which as I understand it was late last year; in fact, I think they were quite defensible. The problem was that there was no way to adjust those estimates based on the on-the-ground and at-the-time conditions. And even taking that into consideration, the general consensus in the days between the end of early voting and Tuesday, March 1 was that more than half of the people who were going to vote had already voted. That was the real problem, as a good 57% of the vote was cast on Tuesday. To me, the main learning from this needs to be that the hotter the election, the more likely that people will show up on Election Day.

2. Compounding the problem was the consolidation of Election Day voting locations. Roughly half of Republican voting locations were folded into others, while the same was true for well more than half of Democratic precincts. This was also an effect of the initial underestimation of turnout, but because there are so few voting machines at Election Day polling locations, and because these were primaries where you had to consider each race individually – no “straight party” option – it made the lines longer. One can make a good case that voting centers, as they have in Fort Bend and other places but which are still “under consideration” in Harris County, could have greatly ameliorated this problem, if for no other reason than they will have more voting machines available at each location.

3. All that said, it’s wholly appropriate for the Justice Department to investigate, and make whatever recommendations they can. In the end, however, this is a problem that needs to be addressed locally. Trail Blazers has more.

UPDATE: The Chron story is here, and the Press has more, including a copy of the letter that was sent.

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6 Comments

  1. Bayard Rustin says:

    Stan Stanart is a clown masquerading as a public servant. And what’s up with Lane Lewis’ “let them eat cake” attitude? This is leadership?

  2. Ross says:

    From reading the rules, it sounds like this is all on the party leadership (both parties) for failing to properly estimate turnout. The County doesn’t make the decisions in primaries. Stanart is a buffoon, but he gets a free ride on this one.

  3. voter_worker says:

    I doubt that this investigation, if it indeed is undertaken by the DoJ, will uncover much more than is already apparent by taking in media coverage. It’s a classic case of events overwhelming best laid plans, and I hope the hard-working staff and volunteers of each party that did the lion’s share of the work to put it together will not be thrown under the bus in the search for a scapegoat. Ross is correct in his observation that “the buck stops here” should apply to party leadership. Anyone with a reliable crystal ball for predicting turnouts should make themselves available when the next presidential primaries happen in 2020. Mr. Kuffner, I’m looking at you.

  4. Paul kubosh says:

    We only had 4 machines. The Democratic primary was over at least an hour before the Republican in my precinct. Maybe that is Lane Lewis’s fault also.

  5. matx says:

    On election day, per my residence, I was sent to Frank Black MS for Democratic Primary or Candlelight Park (which is the polling place for general elections for me) for Republican Primary. However, at Black MS, not only were Democrats voting, but Republicans were voting as well. Republicans were in auditorium with 8 machines, Democrats in lobby with 4. According to neighborhood FB page, a voter in Dem primary arrived at 7:00 a.m. and was told by Republican officials that it was not her polling place and even insisted it was not after she showed them the Harris Co. elections page. She did speak to Democratic officials on site who confirmed it was a Democratic polling place–the Republican officials later apologized–but for some people that may have been their only time to vote on Tuesday and possibly left and never came back.

  6. Mainstream says:

    At my polling place a campaign worker for a Democrat JP candidate pushing cards outside was telling Republican voters that the voting site was only for Democrats, which was not correct information. Of course, once counseled, the campaign worker stopped saying it.

    The most confounding issue was that several voters arrived after 7 p.m. who had heard on CNN that polls in Texas were open until 9 p.m. My hunch is that because El Paso is in another time zone, and most media organizations are based on the East Coast, what they were reporting was that CNN would not report Texas election results until all polls were closed, which would be 9 Eastern Time. 7 p.m. El Paso time.