HOUSTON — Early voting began Tuesday with long lines in Texas, one of the few places in the U.S. not allowing widespread mail balloting during the pandemic, and Jill Biden rallied supporters across the red state that Democrats are no longer writing off.
Texas is one of just five states that did not dramatically expand mail-in voting this year because of COVID-19. And hours before polls opened, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's order limiting counties to one mail ballot drop-off box was upheld by a federal appeals court, stopping dozens of shuttered sites around Texas from reopening.
Both the virus and Texas' high stakes in November were front-of-mind in Jill Biden's first stop, the border city of El Paso, where Abbott has deployed more nurses and medical equipment as cases and hospitalizations climb. Campaigning for her husband, former Vice President Joe Biden, she was due to end her 800-mile (1,300-kilometer) swing across Texas in Houston, with a stop in Dallas in between.
Regina Cuchapin, a registered Democrat and Houston resident, said she still didn't feel safe eating in restaurants because of the coronavirus but that she was willing be among crowds to exercise her right to vote.
"I think that now that people know how serious it is and what precautions to take, I think those who are ready to come out are taking those precautions," said Cuchapin, a healthcare worker.
By Tuesday afternoon, Houston election officials reported more than 100,000 votes had been cast in Harris County, a record turnout for a single day of early voting, which continues through Oct. 30.
Long lines were common at polling sites across Texas, as were masks, although voters are not required to wear them inside polling places. In suburban Houston's Fort Bend County, technical problems kept machines offline for more than an hour as hundreds of people waited to vote. The county's top elected official said he would authorize an investigation.
"Those who are responsible will be held accountable," said Fort Bend County Judge KP George.
Much is on the line in America's largest red state, which has competitive congressional and state legislative races and is a potential presidential battleground. And local election authorities have been pulling out all the stops to ensure the state's 16 million registered voters can safely cast their ballots in person.
In Harris County — which includes Houston and is home to more than 2.4 million voters — there will be triple the number of polling places compared to previous elections. Voters will be able to choose between standing in socially distant lines to vote in person at a polling place, or a drive-thru option that resembles pulling up to order at a fast-food restaurant. Some polling places will stay open later than usual on select nights, and on Oct. 29, seven locations will be open for 24 hours.
To staff the more than 100 voting locations, Harris County officials have doubled the number of paid election workers to 11,000. Bilingual poll workers will be available at each location, and high school students will be on hand as technology aides.
Other large counties are taking similar measures. Travis County, which includes the state capital of Austin, will also offer extended hours at select locations during early voting. Dallas County positioned clear barriers between election workers and voters, and poll workers sanitized any surfaces that were touched and provided finger coverings or a popsicle stick to be used as a stylus on voting machines. El Paso County has an app to inform voters about voting locations and wait times.
Getting to this point in Texas — which has some of the strictest voting laws in the country — has been fraught with legal battles. Abbott expanded the amount of time for early voting by six days but also drew backlash and lawsuits from Democrats and voting rights groups over his order to limit places where voters can hand-deliver ballots. Abbott has said without evidence that the move would "help stop attempts at illegal voting."
Texas Republicans have echoed President Donald Trump's rhetoric that mail-in voting is ripe for fraud, though proof is thin. Harris County, which is run by Democrats, tried to send applications for mail ballots to all of its registered voters, but Abbott sued and the Texas Supreme Court sided with the governor.
"It is more likely that you will get struck by lightning than experience voter fraud," Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said during a tour of the Houston area's temporary voting headquarters. To drive home his point, he pointed to a metal cage under 24-hour law enforcement surveillance where dropped-off and mailed-in ballots are kept secure until Election Day.
Upping the ante is the chance to flip the Republican-controlled Texas State House of Representatives. Democrats are just nine seats away from seizing control for the first time in two decades. Several longtime Republican stronghold districts in the Houston area are in play after close calls in 2018.
Mary Sullivan Casas, 51, stood in line for more than two hours Tuesday to vote at a Methodist church in Westlake, near Austin. She said the state's efforts to limit mail-in voting amounted to voter suppression, but given the limited options, in-person voting was worth the risk.
"It is our privilege as citizens of the United States," she said. "We are hoping for a blue wave. If people get out early enough and vote in force, then the message is clear enough."
The same factor drove Michael Parga, a Republican, to vote early in the Houston suburb of Katy. He said election security is more important than the virus.
"What got me motivated was that they said this was a battleground state, and I thought that was impossible," said Parga, 42.
"This state will stay Republican," he insisted.
Estela Cisneros, 33, from Houston, said COVID-19 concerns during the election are serious, especially for Black and minority communities hit hardest by the pandemic. But this election is too important to not vote.
"There is just so much at stake," Cisneros said. "All I can really tell people is get out there. I was born here and through my vote I am going to give a voice to the people who look like me."