Why Did It Take So Long to Vote in Texas and California?

Why Did It Take So Long to Vote in Texas and California?

WASHINGTON — For all the fears of foreign sabotage and security lapses in voting machines, the biggest nightmares to confront election officials during the year’s biggest primary balloting on Tuesday mostly proved more mundane: unexpected numbers of voters, at polling places that were unprepared to handle them.

On a day when most voting went smoothly, the two largest states in the Super Tuesday elections, California and Texas, struggled with hourslong lines in some major cities and complaints from some voting-rights groups that officials were seeking to reduce turnout for political reasons.

The problems were particularly severe in Texas, a state with some of the nation’s strictest voting requirements and lowest voter turnout. In the most notorious breakdown, some voters at Texas Southern University, a historically black institution in Houston, waited as long as seven hours to cast a ballot.

Some critics complained on Twitter and elsewhere that the delays amounted to voter suppression in a state where Republicans have been frequently sued, sometimes successfully, for trying to minimize Democratic power. But Texas elections are tightly controlled by local officials, not state ones. And in big cities like Houston and Austin which had the biggest problems on Tuesday, those officials are Democrats with scant reason to depress turnout in Democratic urban strongholds.

Election officials said the long waits on Tuesday were largely explained by last-minute surges of undecided voters and glitches in election procedures. Most notable were problems in Harris County, which includes Houston, where voting machines were divided equally between Democratic and Republican voters — but many more Democrats turned out to vote on Tuesday.

Republican turnout was sapped by the lack of a seriously contested presidential primary, but the party’s voters did have choices in races for the House and Senate and an array of state and local offices.

The imbalance stemmed from the county Republican Party’s refusal to agree with Democrats to hold a joint primary election in metropolitan Houston in which voters could cast ballots on any machine. All but a handful of the state’s 254 counties held joint primaries.

The result was long lines of Democratic voters at some polling places, even when county election officials had deployed large numbers of voting machines in expectation of a heavy turnout.

“The parties have to agree on polling locations and equipment allocation,” said Roxanne Werner, the community relations director for Diane Trautman, the Harris County clerk. “We do work with them, but ultimately with a primary election, it’s contingent on the parties.”

Harris County’s problems were heightened by malfunctions in its aging fleet of voting machines. The county plans to replace the machines by 2021.

Many California voters also suffered long waits, particularly in Los Angeles, where the first major deployment of a new $300 million voting system was dogged by glitches that created delays of up to four hours. The presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders asked a federal court on Tuesday to keep polling places open an extra two hours for late voters.

Those sorts of problems, and not deliberate efforts to drive down turnout, were at the root of the problems seen on Tuesday, experts on election administration said.

In some cities, purchases of new voting machines slowed the balloting as voters labored to apply the new technology to the state’s notoriously long ballot. “All over the state, we saw a lot of late openings attributed to technology issues,” said Anthony Gutierrez, the executive director of Common Cause Texas, which helped run a hotline that flagged voting problems. “People were used to voting on the same machine for two decades, and there was going to be some training time required.”

“We all saw what happened at the Iowa and Nevada caucuses,” said Matthew Weil, the director of the elections project at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “Those are party-run events. Primaries are better run, but clearly things happened in individual states that people didn’t realize were going to happen.”

Some delays in both states may have stemmed from a switch in some places to so-called countywide voting centers where anyone could cast a ballot regardless of where they live, rather than being restricted to voting at a single polling place. While the centers make voting more convenient, they also scramble the historical data that election officials had used to place voting machines where demand is highest.

Some Texas cities were also hobbled by an unexpectedly high turnout. The state allows 11 days of early voting, but in Houston, officials said, many Democrats waited until Election Day before settling on a choice in the winnowed presidential field. In Bexar County, home to fast-growing San Antonio, a crush of new arrivals from other states helped fuel a record turnout — and slowed voting with their confusion over the state’s refusal to allow them to register on the spot, as is increasingly common elsewhere.

And in Austin, where delays were more scattered, The American-Statesman newspaper reported that 11 election officials refused to staff polling places for fear of being infected with the coronavirus.

The most notorious delay occurred at Texas Southern in Houston, where one voter made national headlines by waiting seven hours — until after midnight — before casting a ballot. Ms. Werner, of the Harris County clerk’s office, said the campus was hosting a polling place for the first time in a presidential primary, and was swamped by an Election Day turnout that exceeded the total from 11 days of early voting.

The site allotted 10 voting machines to each party, and eventually added 14 additional machines for Democratic voters, she said. But of those who showed up on Tuesday, 1,132 voted in the Democratic primary. Sixty-eight voted for Republican candidates.

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