/Marathon wait times, snaking lines mark the first day of early voting in Texas

Marathon wait times, snaking lines mark the first day of early voting in Texas

AUSTIN — Like marathon finishers, voters at Shady Hollow Village Shopping Center in South Austin on Tuesday morning were praised with shouts of “You did it!” or “It was well worth it!” when they came out of the polling place.

The first day of early voting in the 2020 general election was marked by long waits, lines that snaked through parking lots and around voting locations, and, for the first time, safety measures to prevent the transmission of a deadly virus.

Some voters lined up overnight at voting locations. Just 15 minutes after the polls opened at 7 a.m., at least 11 of the county’s 37 voting locations had wait times of 20 minutes or more.

During the first three hours of voting, 6,000 people cast a ballot. By noon, the total was at 14,000, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said.

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DeBeauvoir said the first day of early voting tends to be the busiest, but she expected lines and wait times to thin out over the next few days. Voters reported hourslong waits.

“This is pretty normal behavior, and I think by day two or three you will find that the lines are less daunting,” DeBeauvoir said. “There is such high enthusiasm out there. Voters are in a good mood and are taking care of each other by wearing masks and social distancing. Everyone is just having a good time. So get out and vote.”

At Shady Hollow Village Shopping Center, some waited for at least three and a half hours. As a pregnant woman emerged from that polling place after a three-hour wait, a bystander told her she would have a good story to tell her baby one day.

Eric Forthun, who voted at the Ben Hur Shrine Temple in North Austin, said he waited about three hours to vote Tuesday morning. Another voter said he waited more than 2 hours to vote at a Randalls in Round Rock, and said the wait “was worth it.”

First-day voter turnout was also big in other Texas counties. As of noon, Bexar County reported 10,509 people had voted and Dallas County reported 25,000 people.

People wait in a long line to cast ballots for the general election at an early voting location at the Renaissance Austin Hotel on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in Austin, Texas. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Around 1:40 p.m., Harris County reported more than 68,000 votes had been cast, beating the 2016 record. More than 16,000 people cast their ballots Tuesday in Williamson County.

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Reporters in Houston, Galveston, Dallas, San Antonio and San Marcos shared photos on social media of lines outside voting centers.

As lines Tuesday morning wrapped around voting locations in Travis County, Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant reported that nearly all eligible voters in Travis County were registered to vote this year.

Of the county’s more than 850,000 eligible voters, a record 97% of them are registered to vote in the Nov. 3 general election, Elfant said.

“This number even exceeds my expectations,” Elfant said. “To everyone who registered to vote, thank you. To our civic army of volunteers who registered voters, thank you. To my voter registration staff, thank you.”

He credited the turnout to the county’s contactless voter registration program, Text2Register, which was used by more than 4,700 county residents.

He also credited the University of Texas Athletics Department for public service announcements.

Bastrop County also reported record-breaking voter registration numbers. Registered voters reached 52,113 as of Sunday, breaking the 2018 midterm election record of 47,462. The county had 45,013 registered voters for the 2016 presidential election.

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Complications and malfunctions

Voters at Dittmar Recreation Center in South Austin reported voting machine malfunctions Tuesday morning that caused longer wait times than unusual.

DeBeauvoir said multiple technicians are deployed across the county to help resolve such issues, and to ensure machines are up and running. The malfunction at Dittmar Recreation Center has been resolved, she said.

“When this happens, people: Don’t stop voting,” she said. “Voters can drop their ballot in the emergency ballot box, and that will still be tallied. … Technical issues might happen at any point, and when they do happen it’s about when and how quickly can we get it resolved.”

People wait in a long line to cast ballots for the general election at an early voting location at the Renaissance Austin Hotel on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in Austin, Texas. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Mail-in ballots

The night before early voting began, a federal appeals court upheld Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that limits counties to one mail-in ballot drop-off location. In Travis County, mail-in ballots can be dropped off at 5501 Airport Blvd.

DeBeauvoir said the county has received 78,000 requests for mail-in ballots. Of those, 75,000 were sent to voter mailboxes and 14,400 have been returned, she said.

Mail-in ballots will not be tallied until 7 a.m. on Election Day, she said.

In July, Gov. Greg Abbott expanded the early voting period by a week because of the coronavirus pandemic. Normally, early voting would have started Oct. 19.

“By extending the early voting period and expanding the period in which mail-in ballots can be hand-delivered, Texans will have greater flexibility to cast their ballots, while at the same time protecting themselves and others from COVID-19,” Abbott said in a statement at the time.

Most voters practiced social distancing while waiting in line Tuesday, and most wore masks.

Roberto Villalpando contributed to this report.