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Harris County Clerk apologizes to voters, "takes full responsibility" for long waits to vote in Houston

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People wait in line to vote around 9:45 p.m. Tuesday, March 3, 2020, at Texas Southern University in Houston. Jon Shapley/Courtesy The Houston Chronicle

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman is taking “full responsibility” for the long lines and wait times that bogged down election night voting and forced some voters to wait more than six hours to cast their ballots.

In a statement released Friday, Trautman, the Democrat who oversees elections in Harris County, apologized to voters affected by the excessively long lines experienced at voting sites serving mostly black and Hispanic communities and said her office would reevaluate how to distribute voting machines across the county.

“It is clear that the history of marginalized communities being left behind in the voting process has led to polling deserts in areas of Harris County,” Trautman wrote. “I believe that we have made some strides, but we still have work left to do.”

Voting at polling sites in mostly black and brown communities was mired in a series of election administration missteps. The county’s wait time reporting system showed incorrect wait times that pushed voters to crowded locations. With voters unable to reroute once polls closed, voting moved frustratingly slow because of an insufficient number of voting machines to serve the hundreds of voters lined up at polling sites.

County officials rushed to get additional voting equipment to those polling places, dipping into its backup fleet. But it wasn’t enough. The worst of it was felt at Texas Southern University, a historically black university in Houston’s Third Ward, where some voters waited in line for more than six hours.

Months before, the local Republican party had pushed back against holding a joint primary, which would have allowed voters to share machines preloaded with ballots for both parties. Without a joint primary, Trautman chose to allocate an equal number of machines for both primaries at each polling site.

But that left voting machines sitting unused on the Republican side of polling places where voting wrapped up once polls closed.

On Friday, Trautman said her office had done “the best with what we had” but committed to rethinking voting machine allocations. In a previous interview with The Texas Tribune, Trautman indicated the county would likely try to purchase additional equipment for the November election.

Though Houston easily saw the longest wait times, voters in other areas of the state also faced long lines that pushed voting late into the night. At Texas State University in San Marcos, for example, students who jumped into line just before polls closed waited four hours to cast their ballots.