HOUSTON — Harris County will be under a microscope on Election Day after vote-counting holdups marred the March primary and led to the resignation of the county’s election administrator.
Under the new leadership of administrator Clifford Tatum, Harris County has added 332 more Election Day polling locations and has modified ballot-scanning machines with paper guides to avoid a repeat of paper jams in the past.
But one challenge that cannot be changed is the sheer size of Harris County. At nearly 1800 square miles, the state of Rhode Island would easily fit in its geographic footprint. Because Texas law forbids voting results from being electronically transmitted, votes must be driven from 782 polling sites to a central counting center at NRG park.
KHOU 11 Investigates did a test run the Tuesday before election day from the farthest voting place—Schultze Junior High School in Waller—47.2 miles away.
Even though the polls close at 7 p.m., ballots won’t be on the move just yet. Any voter in line by that time is still allowed to cast their ballot.
“Once the last voter votes, the judge will shut down their equipment and reconcile their paperwork, and takes roughly about an hour,” Tatum said.
That put our departure time from Waller around 8 p.m. for the long ride into the city. While Highway 290 was congestion-free, it wasn’t exactly a quick trip given the distance. We approached the Galleria area at 8:33 p.m.
On election night, Harris County officials said 559 presiding judges have signed up to drive the ballots and equipment themselves. At 153 polling locations, full-time county employees have been deputized to transport votes, and law enforcement officers at another 80 voting sites will drive them to NRG Arena.
Once they arrive on election night, a team of trained clerks will greet drivers, verify their identify and make sure all the equipment matches the correct polling site. Once equipment is scanned in by bar code, it goes to a receiving area where more verifications and certifications take place, including the V-drive that stores the electronic votes.
“It will take us five to 10 minutes to sort out the equipment and get the V drives out of the scanner to take over to the tabulation room to be tabulated,” Tatum said.
He said it takes about one minute a piece to upload the drives into the system. Harris County has three machines to read them, but Tatum said “staff and resources” may limit the County to initially only using two of them.
“We want to ensure that the supervisor overseeing that process is not skipping a step because he’s trying to watch too many people at one time,” Tatum said.
“We’re going to go as fast as we can, but we’re going to ensure that the count is accurate,” he said.
But election officials can only go as fast as traffic allows for votes to arrive. Our 47-mile practice run ended at NRG park 47 minutes later. And again, that is just one of 782 polling locations. Based on the math alone, Tatum estimates it will take at least six hours to tabulate the votes, with preliminary results posted online around 2 a.m. Wednesday.