The midterm election season kicked off Tuesday in Texas – with election workers, voters and voting rights activists reporting several glitches, including poll worker shortages in several counties and a delay in tabulating ballots in heavily populated Harris County.
But election officials in the Lone Star State identified the biggest challenge as the scramble to fix the higher-than-usual number of mail-in ballots flagged for potential rejection under the state’s restrictive new voting law.
Officials in Harris County – home to Houston – had flagged as faulty nearly 30% of the more than 38,000 mail-in ballots received as of Monday because voters did not include identifying information on the return envelope, the county’s election chief Isabel Longoria told reporters Tuesday morning.
That meant voters were likely to cast more provisional ballots than typical on Election Day, she added.
Harris County elections officials were confident Wednesday they would meet the deadline to count votes and disputed earlier reports of “damaged ballots,” even as the Texas secretary of state’s office stood by that characterization and raised concerns about the delay.
As polls closed Tuesday, Harris County officials had warned of delays in reporting results, according to a news release from state election officials. The issue, according to state officials: damaged ballot sheets that must be duplicated before they can be scanned and tabulated.
But Harris County election officials later said that this was merely a “preliminary discussion” of a possible delay.
“This was a discussion because there are new civil penalties in place because of SB 1 to figure out what the best course of action is should there be a delay,” Leah Shah, the county communications director, told CNN, referring to the new Texas voting law.
“I don’t have concerns about counting the election ballots for this election,” Isabel Longoria, Harris County Elections administrator, told reporters at a news conference.
Tuesday marked the first primaries of the year. On the ballot in Texas were races for governor and a slew of statewide and legislative offices. If no candidate achieves more than 50% support, a runoff election is slated for May.
It also marked the first test of a new voting law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature last year. The law imposes new ID requirements to vote by mail, empowers partisan poll watchers and bans practices used by Harris County in 2020, such as 24-hour and drive-thru voting.
Texans who qualify to vote by mail felt the first consequences of the new law. It required them to include identification numbers both when applying for a mail-in ballot and again on the inside flap of the envelope they use to return the ballot – a process that tripped up many in recent weeks.
Those problems surfaced again at polling places on Tuesday.
Joseph Egbon said he voted in person Tuesday because election officials rejected his mail-in ballot a few days ago.
“It was just last week they sent me the letter,” Egbon told CNN. “I didn’t want to argue so I said, ‘Let me just go ahead’” and vote in person.
Egbon said it was relatively easy to do so. It took just 15 minutes him to vote at the Bayland Park Community Center in southwestern Houston.
Only a subset of Texas voters are eligible to cast ballots by mail. They include those 65 and older, people who will be out of the county and voters who are disabled or ill.
This election represented the first time Delores Jones, 65, was eligible to vote by mail. It didn’t work out so well.
Jones said she applied for a mail-in ballot but never received one. Her neighbor, Ella Clark, 78, said she voted by mail but couldn’t tell whether her ballot had been received.
So, they both turned up to vote in person Tuesday.
“Not taking a chance,” Jones said, describing her decision. Mail-in voting in Texas this year, she added, seems “unreliable.”
Another Houston resident – Jimmie Williams, 87 – has voted by mail for a decade and was waiting this year for Harris County election officials to send him a mail-in ballot application so he could do so again.
But the new law bans election officials from sending out unsolicited mail-in ballot applications. And by the time Williams realized that, it was too late, he said.
So, he joined other voters at the Sunnyside Multi-Service Center in a southeast Houston neighborhood to cast a ballot.
His voting ensemble included a cowboy hat, two face masks and gloves in Tuesday’s 70-degree weather – all part of his effort to guard against a Covid-19 infection, he said.
“The only person who is going to look at for you, is yourself,” he said.
Others around the Houston area interviewed by CNN on Tuesday described a relatively easy process for those who had planned to vote on Election Day.
Trent Hollywood Henderson, 57, said it took him about 15 minutes to cast a ballot at a multi-service center early Tuesday before heading off to his job as a mail carrier for the US Postal Service.
“It wasn’t too bad of an experience,” Henderson said. “There were about eight people in front of me when I got in and about 13 or 14 when I left.”
In other parts of the state, however, voters encountered spot problems because of poll worker shortages.
In Hidalgo County, in southern Texas near the US-Mexico border, the shortages forced some Democratic polling places to close Tuesday.
Democratic Party officials also worked “furiously” to add more Democratic poll workers in Tarrant County, home to Fort Worth, said Rose Clouston, voter protection director for the Texas Democratic Party. She said “normal human stuff” – such as illness and car problems – seemed to contribute to the loss of volunteers.
Under longstanding Texas practice, the political parties themselves oversee the primaries on Election Day and are responsible for recruiting election judges and clerks.
Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the Texas secretary of state’s office, said his office heard of poll worker shortages in three counties, plus a delayed opening in a fourth county because of issues with electronic pollbooks.
This story has been updated Wednesday with additional developments.
Rosa Flores contributed to this report.