With all due respect, this is some ado about not very much.
With straight-ticket voting no longer an option in 2020, the Harris County Clerk estimates the average resident will spend a significantly longer time in the voting booth this fall, which could cause long lines at polling sites in the state’s most populous county.
In an effort to avoid voting delays, Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins has nearly tripled the number of early voting sites to 120 and increased Election Day polling places by 8 percent, to 808. The $27.2 million plan, the most expensive election in county history, also includes extended voting hours and drive-through balloting.
Gov. Greg Abbott also has added an extra week of early voting.
With a projected record turnout of as many as 1.7 million voters, the clerk’s office hopes residents vote early or by mail, if eligible, said Benjamin Chou, Hollins’ director of innovation.
“No matter how much we do, I think at the end of the day there will be lines,” Chou said. “It’s just a matter of will we avoid a nightmare scenario by doing as much as we can, by stretching the limits of what we thought was possible even just a few months ago.”
The Legislature abolished straight-ticket voting, effective in 2020, in an effort to ensure residents make informed choices about candidates.
The elimination of that method, combined with a ballot with more than 80 races and limited access to mail ballots have made this year particularly difficult for elections administrators. A stopwatch test by Hollins’ office calculated that a straight-ticket ballot takes two minutes to cast, while selecting a candidate for each individual race in November would take 15 minutes.
Using those estimates and turnout data from 2018, when 76 percent of voters selected a straight ticket, a Houston Chronicle analysis found county voters would spend a combined 187,000 more hours in the voting booth if forced to vote each race individually.
A more likely outcome is that some voters, late for work or family obligations or simply overwhelmed by the length of the ballot, make choices in only the top races, said University of Houston political science Professor Elizabeth Simas.
“The fear would be they go to vote for president, maybe vote for senator, and then they walk out,” Simas said. “And we’re not going to get a large number of votes cast for the races that are much lower down the ballot.”
I will stipulate that going from clicking one button and being done to having to click a button fifty-something times will make your stay in the booth that much longer. (I have no idea where that “ballot with more than 80 races” item comes from. I just checked my own sample ballot, and I counted 54 total races, and that includes a handful of races with just an unopposed Democrat. The non-Presidential ballot is longer, as there are more statewide contests and more local judicial races, but we’re not in 2022 just yet.) There’s no question that it will take voters longer to vote the whole ballot, and if you are the kind of voter who deliberates over every race and carefully chooses a candidate in each, then yes, you could be there for 15 minutes or so.
But here’s the thing: That kind of voter wasn’t the person who had been clicking the straight-party button before now. And I can tell you, from my own personal experience, if your intent is to mostly or entirely vote for just the candidates of your preferred party, then it doesn’t actually take all that long to complete the ballot. I feel pretty confident saying I’ve been in and out of there in five minutes or less.
I don’t want to minimize the problem. It is going to take longer for many people to vote this year. There will very likely be some lines as a result. It’s clear that part if not all of the reason for eliminating straight ticket voting was the belief by Republicans that making it take longer to vote would benefit them. There have been so many stories this cycle in which a Republican candidate or consultant refers to this, as if it’s a key part of their strategy to win in an electorate that does not favor them. Putting aside the fact that I don’t believe “ballot fatigue” is a thing that significantly favors Republicans, I just don’t think the time factor will be that big, either. We have plenty of voting locations, we have six extra days plus a whole lot of hours to vote, and we have a lot more people voting by mail this year. I appreciate that Chris Hollins is thinking about this, but it is not something that will keep me awake at night.