Elections are a delicate and complex process. In the months leading up to Election Day, election officials must anticipate and prepare for hundreds of potential issues. But in Texas, an issue nobody could have foreseen has left the best laid plans of the Harris County Clerk’s Office in disarray.
Over 10,000 voting machines were destroyed in a sudden warehouse fire on August 27th, leaving the county without a single voting machine to use in the upcoming elections. Luckily, no one was injured, but with just two months to go before Election Day, the county is scrambling to find ways to salvage the situation.
In what may be the biggest understatement of this electoral cycle, County Clerk Beverly Kaufman speculates that there “likely will be a shortage of voting machines on Election Day”. A shortage of election machines in Harris County is no joke, as the county is home to over 4 million people and roughly 15 percent of Texas’s registered voters. However, Kaufman is doing whatever it takes to ensure elections run as smoothly as possible despite this setback. Kaufman announced an emergency plan to spend $13.6 million to buy 2,325 voting machines. Additionally, Harris County officials are attempting to borrow spare voting machines from other counties. The county used around 4,300 machines in the previous gubernatorial election, so 2,325 plus some loaner machines may be enough to get the county through this upcoming election.
Despite the obvious difficulties facing Harris County, Kaufman promises that every single polling place will be open on Election Day, and that voters will not be inconvenienced by the loss of the machines. Closing polling locations may not seem like a problem, but if some polling stations were closed, voters in those precincts would need to be informed about where to report on Election Day. This reeducation effort could be expensive and confusing, and since voters may have to travel to relatively inconvenient polling stations, turnout could suffer.
Interestingly, a possible solution could come in the form of early voting. Earlier this week, this site published an article listing the benefits of allowing no-excuse absentee ballots to be sent before Election Day. In Harris County, early voting is now more useful than ever. The county is recommending that citizens send in absentee ballots before Election Day, to help alleviate any overcrowding at the polls.
Though no official ruling has been made about whether the fire was arson, that has not stopped some from speculating about its origin. The Huffington Post published this article which all but accuses the local Houston Tea Party, known as the King Street Patriots, of starting the fire to assist in a “voter suppression campaign”. At this stage, there appears to be absolutely no evidence concerning the cause of the fire, but as more facts start to come out, this could turn very ugly, very quick. Keep an eye on this story.
Anthony Balady is a student at William & Mary School of Law, and Editor-in-Chief of stateofelections.com