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Clear skies across Texas ushered voters to the polls for a historic Election Day on Tuesday, even as a political storm hovers at the close of an anxious, divisive presidential election unlike any other.
Masked up against a pandemic and determined to be a part of the record-breaking turnout in Texas and across the nation, voters lined up before dawn at schools and shopping malls and gigantic brand-new voting centers.
“My big takeaway from this morning is that the sun is shining in Texas and people are voting,” said Mimi Marziani, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, after citing high turnout numbers in big counties like Harris and Fort Bend. “At this point in the day, the big story is celebrating the fact that Texas has squarely moved from being a state where so many folks were sitting on the sideline to being a voting state.”
As the national conversation around potential Election Day problems and unrest continued to grow in the days leading up to Tuesday, the push for early voting as a failsafe against problems drove record-breaking numbers of voters to the polls before the day even began.
But although some 57.3% of registered Texas voters had already cast their in-person and absentee ballots with an extra week added to early voting, many still waited until Tuesday to take part in what many voters called the most important election of their lifetimes.
“In my family, everybody has different opinions, and I really wanted to read more about [the issues],” said Lizbeth Lopez, 38, a home health agency owner voting Tuesday in El Paso. “I did change my mind, so it was good that I wanted to make sure that I finished my research.”
With polls showing a tight presidential race in traditionally red Texas, elections officials in larger counties said they expect to see overall vote total records broken.
Harris County has already hit an all-time record high with 1.55 million total votes so far, including 123,000 votes cast as of 2:20 p.m. Tuesday, according to the Harris County Clerk’s Office. Total raw number turnout increases are in part a result of the addition of more Texans overall; 1.8 million more people have registered to vote in this state since the 2016 election.
Harris added 245,851 new voters since 2016 — more than any other county.
First-time voter Saryn Anderson, a psychology senior at Lone Star College, voted with her mother at Dekaney High School in Houston. They were done in five minutes.
They weren’t able to vote early because of their busy schedules, Anderson said, but they both felt it was a priority.
“I have nothing but good news to say about it, you know, it was pretty good,” Anderson said. “I'm happy I got to participate this year. I finally turned the age to be able to, and I'm hoping we have good results tomorrow.”
In 2016, some 73.3% of votes in Texas were cast early and 26.7% on Election Day, according to the secretary of state.
Many large Texas counties, Harris included, are seeing lower Election Day turnout than in previous presidential election years but will still likely set overall voter turnout records when early ballots are added in, local election officials said.
In El Paso County, about 19,000 people cast ballots as of midday Tuesday— bringing the running total to 241,149 including early votes and absentee ballots so far. That’s even as the county experiences a COVID-19 surge with 18,210 new cases in the last two weeks.
El Paso voter Joshua Laymon was quarantined for the last part of October and missed early voting, so he showed up Tuesday for his last chance to vote. Laymon, 27, said he felt like voting posed little risk “as long as everyone is taking precautions and you take care of yours.”
“I really needed to get it done,” he said.
In North Texas, Tarrant County saw more than 63,000 people vote on Election Day as of 2:20 p.m., according to its live voter turnout tracker.
When early votes are included, total numbers already surpassed the 682,740 voters who cast ballots in Tarrant County in 2016.
In Dallas County, some 88,262 had voted as of 3:50 p.m.
In South Dallas, poll workers applauded Brian Arriaga, 24, for casting his first ballot at the Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women's Leadership School.
“There’s big things happening right now,” he said. “It feels good to vote.”
A few blocks away, at James Madison High School, voters trickled in at the 6 o’clock hour — with a police car and volunteers handing out snacks and water stationed outside.
“I honestly was not going to vote until today,” said 23-year-old Genie Washington, another first-time voter. “I didn’t know if I should be nervous or not. ... I mean they’re boarding up the city and stuff — I thought it’d be more drama, but it was easy.”
Still, poll worker Dwawn Brown said it was a slow day at the high school, with only about 140 voters as of 6 p.m.
“I believe that everybody early voted,” she said, though she predicted the last hour of voting would be busier.
Minutes later, a woman dressed in a striped black-and-white pantsuit jogged into the building, panting, “I made it!”
Early Tuesday afternoon, Fort Bend County Judge KP George tweeted that Fort Bend was the first reported county in the state to surpass 70% total voter turnout. However, most of that is a result of record early voting. Fort Bend Elections Manager John Oldham said Election Day voting was lower than usual. As of 1 p.m., around 15,000 people had voted there for the day.
In Bexar County, a total of 47,230 people had voted as of 2 p.m., averaging about 7,500 per hour.
That doesn’t put the county on track with the total turnout Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen was looking for, she told reporters Tuesday morning. But Bexar County had already surpassed total voter turnout for 2016 with four hours left before polls close.
In Hays County, John Gamez, a mass communications junior at Texas State University, wanted to be part of the Election Day action, so he voted on campus Tuesday instead of voting early.
It took him under an hour, he said, and though he was worried about catching the virus, he saw people being cautious — wearing masks and socially distancing inside.
“I just kept to myself,” Gamez said. “I was trying to keep myself safe, and I think that’s like the most important thing I could’ve done for anyone.”
Schoolwork at Houston Community College kept Jalen Davis from voting early, but about 90 minutes before the polls closed Tuesday, he made it to Emancipation Park Cultural Center in South Central Houston to cast his ballot — and had no problems doing so.
"Quick and easy," said Davis, 22.
Morgan Shirley, who works at Chevron, always waits to cast her ballot until Election Day, an "iconic day for me," and the pandemic didn't stop her this year.
"It was super safe, super clean, no voter intimidation," said Shirley, who voted in Houston. "I live in the neighborhood, too, and it's known for protests, so I don't know what will happen tonight. But it was great to see the Democratic process functioning."
But the day has not been without hiccups.
Although most polling places opened on time at 7 a.m. Tuesday, the Texas Civil Rights Project said it had received reports of at least a dozen locations across Texas that were still closed by 8 a.m.
Two counties, Upshur in East Texas and Hidalgo in the Rio Grande Valley, extended voting hours after technical issues delayed the openings of some polling locations.
“There have been a couple of bumps, of course,” Marziani said.
But while some feared long waits and big problems, Jim O'Quinn was looking for a more eventful trip to his East Austin polling place — and came away a bit disappointed.
Fueled by the camaraderie of Election Day, he was hoping for a bit more action — but he walked in alone, the only voter at the time, and was done in five minutes.
“I tend to enjoy the sort of excitement with a bunch of people at the same location,” O’Quinn said. “Except for there were not many people here.”
Darla Cameron, Kate McGee, Julián Aguilar, Alexa Ura, Juan Pablo Garnham, Mitchell Ferman, Jolie McCullough, Trinady Joslin and Stacy Fernández contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Houston Community College, Lone Star College and the Texas secretary of state have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.