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Houston voters are turning out in record numbers. Could they flip Texas for Biden?

NBC News logo NBC News 10/29/2020 Mike Hixenbaugh

HOUSTON — It was after 8 p.m. Tuesday when Hector Martinez came straight from work to an early-voting site near his home, flicked off his headlights and headed inside to cast a ballot.

Four years ago, the early-voting location nearest his office closed at 5 p.m. most weeknights, making it impossible for Martinez to get there after his evening shift as a maintenance worker. As a result, the wound up waiting in line for nearly an hour to vote on Election Day in 2016.

“This was much easier,” Martinez, 47, said Tuesday, after voting at the Bayland Park Community Center in southwest Houston. “No line. No problem.”

Martinez, who voted for former Vice President Joe Biden in the presidential race, is among more than 1.2 million voters who’ve already cast ballots in Harris County, which includes Houston, as of Wednesday evening, nearly surpassing the fast-growing county’s total turnout from 2016. Experts say the surge in voter participation in the nation’s third largest county almost certainly benefits Democrats and could be the key to flipping Texas from red to blue. And it demonstrates what’s possible when local officials make big investments to make voting easier.

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In 2016, under Republican leadership, Harris County spent about $4 million to administer the elections. After Democrats took control of every countywide office, officials increased the election budget to a staggering $31 million this year.

That’s allowed election officials to triple the number of early-voting sites in the county of 4.7 million residents. They vastly expanded voting hours so residents like Martinez could come after work. During the final days of early voting, some locations will be open 24 hours. And officials also opened 10 drive-thru voting sites across the county, making it possible for residents worried about the coronavirus to cast ballots from the safety of their cars.

a police car parked on the side of a road: Texans Deliver Their Absentee Ballots At Houston's Only Drop-Off Site (Go Nakamura / Getty Images) © Go Nakamura Texans Deliver Their Absentee Ballots At Houston's Only Drop-Off Site (Go Nakamura / Getty Images)

As a result, more Harris County residents have voted early this year than ever before.

“What we're seeing is, when you build it they come,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top elected official, who is the first woman and the first Latina to hold the job. “We’ve learned that we can't blame the historic lack of participation on the voters themselves. It's been these obstacles.”

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston, said these changes could have profound implications for Tuesday’s presidential election. Polling shows an unusually tight race in Texas, with some election forecasters now labeling the once-solidly Republican state as a toss-up. If Biden is going to beat President Donald Trump and become the first Democrat to win Texas since 1976, Rottinghaus said, it’s going to take unprecedented turnout in big urban and suburban communities like Harris County, the most populous county in the state.

“Harris County is the tip of the spear for Democrats in Texas,” Rottinghaus said. “It needs to be leading turnout to be able to offset some of the Republican strongholds in rural parts of the state. Basically, Texas doesn't flip if Harris County doesn't have supersized turnout.”

He estimates at least 1.5 million voters need to turn out in Harris County for Democrats to have a reasonable shot at winning Texas. With another two days left of early voting, it’s possible the county could hit that total before Election Day.

a group of people in a park: Early Voting (Mark Felix / The Washington Post via Getty Images) © Provided by NBC News Early Voting (Mark Felix / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“I mean, not to be cliché, but elections have consequences,” Rottinghaus said, referring to 2018, when Hidalgo and other Democrats won county offices in Harris County. “And when you start to make policy changes that lead people to participate more, you're going to see a different type of voter come to the polls. So, that's exactly what we're seeing.”

Not everyone has welcomed the changes. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, issued an order in October limiting counties to only one drop-off location for absentee ballots, forcing 11 other sites across the sprawling Harris County to be closed. And the Texas GOP waged an unsuccessful legal battle to force Harris County to close its drive-thru voting sites. Leading state Republicans also sued unsuccessfully to block Abbott’s order allowing counties to add six additional days of early voting during the pandemic.

Hidalgo pointed out that voters in Republican-leaning precincts in northern Harris County have also benefited from the changes.

“As far as our investment, it's simply about participation for all voters,” she said.

The sweeping expansion of voting options in Harris County followed embarrassing headlines just seven months ago during the Democratic primary election here, when dozens of Houston voters were stuck waiting in line for nearly six hours — some until 1 a.m.

Much of the credit for the turnaround has gone to Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, who was appointed to the position in June. Hollins, 33, a graduate of the Yale Law School and the Harvard Business School, assembled a team to study what went wrong in March and what it would take to fix it.

That led to the plan to vastly expand early-voting locations and hours, and to rely on data to better distribute voting machines to the areas with the largest turnout. In August, Hollins’ office put out a call for 11,000 election workers to carry out his ambitious plans. In what some experts have taken as a signal of voter enthusiasm in Harris County, more than 29,000 people applied.

“None of this works without people who are engaged,” Hollins said.

As they rolled out plans, Hollins was most concerned about finding ways to make voting easier for people with difficult work schedules. Data shows that a disproportionate number of Harris County residents who show up to vote after 5 p.m. are Latino, possibly because they are more likely to work in service jobs.

Latinos have also historically been less likely to vote in Texas.

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That’s why, beginning Thursday, Hollins' plan calls for eight of the county’s 122 early-voting sites to remain open for 24 hours.

“That's to allow every single voter who needs to, whether they’re shift workers at one of the plants or factories around town, whether they are working in our Texas Medical Center to save lives during this pandemic, or whether they're working at a grocery store, stocking shelves at 2 or 3 in the morning,” Hollins said. “We're going to give every single voter an opportunity to cast their ballot at a time that's convenient for them.”

James Childress, 73, appreciates the effort. Late Tuesday evening, he walked over to an early-voting site near his home and was able to cast a ballot within minutes. Childress, a Black housekeeping worker at a veterans hospital, was relieved he didn’t have to rush home after work to get in line like he had to in past elections.

“Nothing was going to stop me from voting this year,” Childress, who cast a ballot for Biden, said. “But I’m glad that the powers that be are working to make it a little bit easier for all of us.”

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