Politics

Eight-Hour Waits. Machine Glitches. Why Early Voting in Some States Has Had a Rough Start.

Virginia’s online voter registration portal crashed on the final day it was available when roadside utility workers cut the wrong cable. Texans waited in long lines on the first day of early voting in their state’s biggest cities, and in one county in the Houston suburbs, a programming error took down all of the voting machines for much of the morning. On Georgia’s second day of early voting, long lines again built up at polling places in the Atlanta suburbs.

The hurdles to early voting on Tuesday resulted from a combination of intense voter interest that stressed the capacity of overwhelmed local elections officials and the sort of messiness that has long been common in American elections and which is now under a microscope as concerns over voter suppression and the unprecedented dynamics of voting during a pandemic collide.

The long lines in Georgia and Texas illustrate how eager voters are to cast ballots in the 2020 election — particularly, but not only, in Democratic-trending urban and suburban areas. By 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, had smashed its first-day early-voting turnout record. In Gwinnett County, Ga., north of Atlanta, even with the long lines there was a 450 percent increase in first-day early voting compared with 2016, according to Ryan Anderson, who tracks Georgia voting data on the Georgia Votes website.

In Virginia, which opened in-person early voting last month, Tuesday was the final day to register to vote. But the state’s online voter registration portal went down early in the morning, cutting off access both online and in local registrars’ offices.

The website crashed after a fiber optic cable was cut just south of Richmond, according to the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, which handles the state’s cybersecurity. In a news conference, Gov. Ralph Northam said the cable was “inadvertently cut during a roadside utilities project.”

Mr. Northam, a Democrat, said that he did not have sole authority to change the voter registration deadline but that he would support a legal effort to ask a judge to extend the deadline.

“We’re looking at all of our options,” Mr. Northam said. “As governor, I don’t have the authority” to alter the deadline.

Virginia’s voter registration website advised people seeking to register to vote to print out and complete a paper application, which may count as long as it is delivered to a voter registration office or postmarked on Tuesday.

In Texas, the first day of early voting brought long lines in the state’s major urban centers, with hourslong waits in San Antonio. Officials attributed the long lines to high turnout, as well as ballots that require more time to fill out. A change in state law forbidding straight-ticket or one-punch voting means voters can no longer choose a party’s entire slate with one mark but must manually select each candidate on the ballot.

“They haven’t had one complaint on the machines,” said Judge Nelson W. Wolff, the executive of Bexar County. “It’s just a huge turnout.”

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An estimated three million new voters have registered in the state since 2016, which has had a net increase of 1.3 million voters since 2018 alone.

Straight-ticket voting had been particularly popular among Democrats, and in Texas, the ballot can be quite cumbersome.

In Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, voters can select candidates in three federal races and 18 state and county races, along with contests for mayors, city councils, school districts and municipal referendums, among others. In Leon Valley, a city of 10,000 surrounded by San Antonio, voters will decide on 29 separate ballot questions.

ImageNicholas Hoover, an election clerk, made final preparations before early voting began on Tuesday at the Hays County Government Center polling place in San Marcos, Texas.
Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

In Fort Bend County, a fast-growing suburban area of more than 800,000 people southwest of Houston, voting machines at 30 early-voting sites did not work Tuesday morning because of a “programming glitch,” according to Judge K.P. George, the county’s top elected official.

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Mr. George, a Democrat elected in 2018, said that by 10 a.m. more than 70 percent of voting machines at the county’s early voting sites were back online.

“We are going to launch a full investigation — this is 100 percent unacceptable,” Mr. George said. “Something bad happened, and I don’t have an exact answer for it.”

In Houston on Tuesday afternoon, the line at the polling site on West Gray Street at the outer edge of the River Oaks neighborhood wrapped around part of a community center as dozens of people stood in the heat.

Voters said several factors had led them to vote early in person, including concerns over the coronavirus and mail-in balloting, as well as participating in what voters for both parties described as a historic election.

“This is the most important election, I think, in many, many generations,” said Lissa Tucker, 49, who is pregnant and expecting to deliver her first child next week. “It’s always best to do it in person. So I really wanted to make sure I vote early so there’s less room for error and to make sure my vote counted.”

While early voting had just gotten underway in Texas, heavy turnout continued for a second day in Georgia, but officials and activists said the process seemed generally smoother than the day before, when voters endured lines as long as eight hours.

Wait times on Tuesday in Cobb County, Ga., ranged from 45 minutes at one location to six hours at another, according to Aklima Khondoker, the Georgia director of All Voting Is Local.

In Gwinnett County, the Democratic Party chairwoman, Bianca Keaton, reported long lines and three-hour waits at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds and eight hours at Gwinnett elections headquarters in Lawrenceville.

Jasper Watkins III, a candidate for county commission, criticized Gwinnett officials for disorganization.

“You don’t come to the Super Bowl with the C team,” Mr. Watkins said. “All these people were out here, and they just don’t have it together. There were eight or nine stations to register and only four people manning them.”

Joe Sorenson, a spokesman for Gwinnett County, said some voters had slowed down lines by arriving with absentee ballots in hand, yet announcing they wanted to vote early — requiring an extra step.

While attributing long lines to heavy turnout, he also blamed the state’s new computerized voting system for problems Tuesday.

“It has been slow at times today, and for a period of time, it was down altogether,” he said.

Georgia officials reported a total of 128,590 votes cast in early voting on Monday — nearly 38,000 more than on the first day of early voting in 2016.

The first day of early voting in Georgia did not extend to the entire state. In 35 of the state’s 159 counties, polling sites did not open Monday, an apparent violation of the state’s early-voting laws.

Andy Holland, an assistant supervisor of election registration in Houston County, said the county had not been required to open for early voting on Monday because Columbus Day is a county-observed holiday. “The confusion comes about because not every county observes Columbus Day,” Mr. Holland said.

On Tuesday morning, some voters waited three hours at Houston County’s early voting site in Perry, Ga., though Mr. Holland said that by the afternoon wait times had decreased to 20 to 30 minutes.

Also on Tuesday, Judge Michael Brown of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia turned away a lawsuit requesting that he order additional personnel, training, equipment and emergency paper ballots at Georgia polling places to alleviate long lines.

Documents in the lawsuit, filed in August by the Democratic Party, concluded that polling lines were longer in Georgia neighborhoods with large numbers of Black voters.

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