Long lines frustrate Houston voters in black neighborhoods

National

People wait in line to vote Tuesday, March 3, 2020, at Texas Southern University in Houston. As Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders racked up victories around the other 13 states holding primaries Tuesday, Texas remained a tight race hours after polls closed. (Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle via AP)

HOUSTON (AP) — The frustrations began early for Ahmed King as he wandered Houston trying to cast his ballot in Texas’ Democratic primary.

The 46-year-old radiology technician went to four usual polling places Tuesday in his predominately African-American neighborhood. Three were closed and the fourth had little parking and an hour-plus wait, he said.

King finally learned about another polling place in a white and Hispanic neighborhood with little wait. A new system allows voters to cast their ballot anywhere in Harris County, so he drove 15 miles (24 kilometers) to vote there.

“I first tried to vote at 1 p.m. Central time and finally got done at 6:05.,” King said. “I have never had an experience like this.”

King had plenty of company. Long lines snaked out of Houston polling places, with many waiting more than an hour and some for several hours in predominately minority, Democratic neighborhoods. Lines in mostly white, Republican neighborhoods were shorter.

There were conflicting explanations for the extended delays in the nation’s fourth-largest city. Advocates warned of voter suppression, but some experts said the natural hiccups in a new voting system and housing segregation better explain the long waits in African American communities.

Harris County elections officials blamed the local Republican Party’s refusal to hold a joint primary, while leaders from both parties questioned why administrators initially allocated an even number of voting machines to each primary, even though the Democrats’ race was hotly contested and drew the vast majority of voters.

If we’d tried to give the Democrats more machines, the Republicans “would have cried all the way to Washington, D.C., to complain about disenfranchisement,” Harris County elections director Michael Winn told The Associated Press Tuesday night.

In August 2019, the county’s Republican Party declined to hold a joint primary. Chair Paul Simpson wrote in a letter to Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, a Democrat, that such a system would increase delays, confusion, conflict and cost.

On Wednesday, Simpson said the GOP had supported putting a different number of machines for each party at different polling places and blasted election officials.

”Attempting to blame Republicans for Democrat lines is trying to shift the blame from their own incompetence and failure,” he said.

Part of the issue is that Texas leaves much of the administration of elections to local governments, creating dispirit systems across the state’s 254 counties. The state sets laws and the secretary of state provides guidance, but many election decisions are left to county officials and the parties.

“Texas is one of the more dispersed election systems,” said Wendy Underhill, who analyzes election policy at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

By contrast, in some states such as neighboring Oklahoma, state officials make most of the decisions and local officials carry them out. Underhill said that nationwide, parties generally do not have a ton of say in how primaries work. But they run primaries and caucuses in a handful of states with smaller populations: Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming.

Mark Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University, said the long lines in Houston were caused by Tuesday’s races having the highest turnout Harris County has seen since its adoption last year of a system that allows people to vote at any polling place. This year’s primary saw 321,000 Democrats cast ballots in the county, a 44% jump from the 2016 presidential primary. Jones said it’s difficult for election officials to predict who will vote where.

“Since you have relatively high levels of residential housing segregation in Houston, African-American voters are tending to vote at voting sights in African-American communities, which increases the concentration of Democrats,” Jones said.

But Anthony Gutierrez, the executive director of Common Cause Texas, said hourslong waits are part of a systemic problem in the state.

“To put it bluntly, is that the people in power in state government have no interest in making it easier for Texans to vote,” he said in a statement.

Hervis Rogers spent more than six hours in line to finally cast the last ballot at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday at Texas Southern University, a historically black school in Houston. Rogers said he was late for his overnight job and he thought about leaving, “but I was telling myself, ‘Don’t do that.’

“The way it was set up, it was like it was set up for me to walk away,” Rogers told reporters after leaving the polling station. “But I said I am not going to do that.”

When asked why he didn’t leave, Rogers replied: “Every vote counts.”

___

Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Associated Press writers Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, New Jersey contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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