Kari Noser wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but she had concerns about going to a polling place during a pandemic.
Would it be too crowded to ensure adequate social distancing? Would there be enough air circulation to prevent the new coronavirus from lingering in an indoor space? Would she have to touch any surfaces that might be contaminated?
Fortunately for Noser, a Garden Oaks resident, she said she felt at ease as soon as she walked into the voting room Tuesday afternoon at Waltrip High School. She said there was no line as well as adequate space and circulation on the West 34th Street campus, which served as one of more than 100 polling places in Harris County for a primary runoff election that was postponed for two months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There also were plexiglass dividers between voters and election workers, and everyone inside the voting room was wearing a mask. Voters also received rubber finger covers so their skin did not make contact with the voting machines.
“It felt very safe to be in there,” Noser said. “It was not as scary or bad as I thought it would be.”
That sentiment was echoed by several other voters who cast ballots at Waltrip on Tuesday, when Harris County held its first election since the primary on March 3 – just a few days before the spread of COVID-19 caused public events to be cancelled, businesses to close and Houston-area residents to spend a bulk of their time at home. And with no end to the pandemic in sight, the runoff might have served as a preview of what it will be like to vote in the general election come November.
Interim Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, who took over for Diane Trautman on June 1 and was administering an election for the first time, said he and his staff plan to use the runoff as a learning experience for the fall. In addition to safety measures such as the finger covers, plexiglass shields and supplying personal protective equipment to poll workers and hand sanitizer to voters, Hollins said he also implemented curbside and drive-through voting in some instances.
“We were prepared for a number of different situations,” he said late Tuesday morning. “But I think we’ve been pleased with how things have gone.”
Multiple voters said they liked that there was no line at Waltrip, but some wondered whether that was an indication of low voter turnout. According to Hollins’ office, more than 50,000 ballots were cast across the county on Tuesday. There was expanded early voting from June 29-July 10, when more than 154,000 ballots were cast in person or by mail.
According to the Texas Democratic Party, the 955,735 voters who cast ballots in the Democratic primary runoff on a statewide level was a record for the party. The previous record was 746,641 runoff voters in 1994.
There figures to be even greater turnout for the general election, leading Independence Heights resident Kimberly Jordan to say in-person voting in November likely will not go as quickly or as smoothly as it did Tuesday.
“This is not the main election,” she said.
Northside-area resident Kevin Lockler said voting while wearing a mask was a “little bit awkward,” but he described the overall experience as “pretty smooth.” Most Texans have been required to wear face coverings in public since July 3, per an executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott.
Hollins said most Harris County voters were compliant with the mask mandate during early voting, with “less than 1 percent” fighting the requirement. He said voters who refused to wear masks were given the option to have a voting machine brought to them outside, and if they did not want that, Hollins said the voters were allowed to go inside and cast ballots anyway while being separated from other voters and poll workers.
Hollins also said there was a small number of voters who did not like being asked to briefly remove their masks so their identities could be verified by poll workers.
Oak Forest resident Bob McBrinn said polling places with masks, plastic shields and hand sanitizer has become a reality that voters need to accept.
“We‘re in a new age,” he said. “Going forward, we might need to keep those things around.”
If voting in November is anything like it was Tuesday, Noser said she will feel comfortable about returning to a polling place to cast her ballot.
There is an ongoing legal battle about whether all Texans should be allowed to vote by mail, particularly during a pandemic. As it stands, only Texas voters who have a disability, are age 65 or older, are incarcerated but otherwise eligible to vote or will be out of their home county on Election Day and during early voting can casts ballots by mail.
Hollins previously said his office sent mail-in ballots to all voters who were eligible, and more voters took advantage than during previous elections. Harris County also had 11 locations where voters could drop off absentee ballots that were not mailed on time.
Regardless of how the voting-by-mail issue plays out between now and November, several area residents were encouraged to know that voting in person during a pandemic can be safe, easy and efficient.
“We have to do it,” Noser said. “We’ve got to get out there and vote.”