AUSTIN, Texas — Harris County wasn't the only area that had issues at the polls during Tuesday's primary election.
Several voting locations throughout the state were unable to open because of election staff shortages, causing some to open later in the day and others to shut down completely.
Locations in Dallas, Tarrant and Hidalgo counties reported missing either a Republican or Democratic Party election judge. These staff members are appointed by their respective parties to oversee polling sites.
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If one of the parties’ judges is absent, the polling site cannot operate. That’s because by state law, no polling site can serve only one party, Tarrant County elections administrator Heider Garcia told The Texas Tribune.
Garcia said it was difficult to recruit polling staff this year, but he couldn’t say exactly why.
“I honestly can’t tell you why people are not motivated,” he said. “Was it pay? Was it lack of interest? Was it stress over possible penalties? I mean, I don’t know. We need to reach out to the people who said no.”
During last year’s legislative sessions, Texas lawmakers created new criminal penalties for election workers accused of interfering with poll watchers’ activities. The new rules were enacted after many Republican officials echoed former President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud during the 2020 presidential election, despite there being no evidence. Election officials and voting rights groups warned legislators that the new restrictions could have a potential chilling effect on election workers.
James Slattery, a senior staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, pointed to the new voting laws, often referred to as Senate Bill 1, as a possible deterrent that kept election judges from participating in Tuesday’s elections.
“Although we don’t know all the reasons why there was an unusual shortage today, we do know that bills like Senate Bill 1 — which imposed harsh new criminal penalties on poll workers and harsh new restrictions on what they could do in the polling place — only serve to deter poll workers from the important work they do in administering our elections and safeguarding our right to vote,” Slattery said during a virtual press conference Tuesday.
Ten polling locations in Dallas were completely shut down because of the staffing shortages, according to the Dallas County elections website. There were 438 voting centers open as of Tuesday afternoon. Dallas County elections officials could not be reached for further comment.
Kathleen Thompson, the communications director for the Dallas County Democratic Party, said some election judges had told her they were concerned about the new voting restrictions and harsh penalties enacted last year. The Dallas County Republican Party did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Brennan Center for Justice, which sued Texas over its voter restrictions, last year criticized the effects these laws may have on election workers.
“These new penalties are one example of a troubling new trend of state laws that target election officials and poll workers,” the center warned in a statement in September. “Laws like these rub salt in the wounds of election workers, many of whom faced unprecedented threats and intimidation last year for simply doing their jobs.”
Polling judges preside over voting locations to ensure that the election process is administered fairly and lawfully. Since the parties appoint their own polling judges and staff members, Garcia said Tarrant County election officials couldn’t directly control how many party election judges were lined up for Tuesday’s primary.
“We’re kind of at their mercy,” he said.
More than a dozen Tarrant County polling locations were intermittently closed for two hours Tuesday morning because one of the parties did not have a county election judge present, Garcia said. There were around 10 or 11 polling locations with Democratic vacancies and two or three with Republican vacancies this morning, he said.
Officials with the Republican and Democratic parties in Tarrant County could not be immediately reached for comment.
Garcia said Tarrant County was able to reallocate staff to get the locations running.
To prevent the polling locations from having to be shut down altogether, Garcia used an emergency authorization to allow party-appointed election judges to operate the opposing party’s voting machines. Eight of the Democratic vacancies were filled by Republican staff who volunteered to help out, he said. One Democratic staffer did the same at a Republican voting station, but Garcia said he believed the vacancy was later filled by a Republican.
Garcia acknowledged that some people might be wary about members of the opposing party operating another party’s machines, but he said it was the county’s only option to keep them operational.
“Rather than closing and disenfranchising a lot of people, we said let’s find a way to staff them,” Garcia said.
The locations with vacancies were ones that typically saw a low turnout for the party with the vacancy, he said. For instance, one location that typically sees a larger Republican voter turnout and had only a dozen or so Democratic voters last year was missing its Democratic election judge Tuesday, he said.
The same thing happened in Dallas County, Thompson said, with Democrats filling staffing for Republicans at 25 sites to keep them open.
Garcia said Tarrant County will have to investigate why there were election judges missing at some polling places. Overall, recruiting election judges and poll workers was more difficult this year, he said. But an analysis of why it happened will have to wait until after the election. For now, his team was in a “put-out-the-fire mode,” he said.
Hidalgo County also closed polling sites because of staffing shortages. County Judge Richard Cortez, a Democrat who is running for reelection, blamed the local Democratic Party and called the closures triggered by the lack of election judges “very disappointing,” according to The Monitor, the McAllen-based newspaper.
Hidalgo County Democratic chairperson Patrick Eronini said the shortages came because there was not enough time to train staff on how to operate the new voting machines and because some staff members died from COVID-19. Ten election judges quit because they didn’t feel comfortable with the new machines, he said.
“I ask all those who are quick to criticize to volunteer for future elections,” Eronini said on Facebook. “I apologize that we were forced to close some locations but there were circumstances beyond our control.”
Eronini said in a phone interview with the Tribune that he believed the new voting restrictions may have also caused people to be afraid to work this election cycle.
“There are so many rumors on what could happen if you make a mistake,” he said. “Republicans put a lot of fear into people.”
The chair for the Hidalgo County Republican Party didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Other counties also reported election staff shortages but did not have to close polling sites. Harris, Travis, Fort Bend, Cameron and El Paso counties reported that no polling sites were closed Tuesday.
Harris County encountered some minor technical issues with machines at two locations, but those were quickly resolved. There were also issues with the new paper ballots that slowed the counting process.
“We did have several poll workers not show up this morning, but all of our sites are staffed and open,” said Lisa R. Wise, the elections administrator for El Paso County.
Remi Garza, the Cameron County elections administrator, said some clerks didn’t show up but his office was able to find staff to have all polling locations operating at 7 a.m. Tuesday.
“As with all elections, we did have a few clerks that did not show up, but we were able to find additional staff or moved staff from one polling location to another,” he said.
Garza also said there were some complaints regarding waiting times at school campuses.
“We have had issues with individuals having to wait to access school campuses during drop-off and pickup times for students, but we worked with districts to see if we could identify them and allow them access,” Garza said. “That is the only complaint we have had regarding wait times.”
This story is from our news partners at the Texas Tribune. Read more here.