Drive-through democracy: Texas official makes voting easier

There are benefits to drive-through voting as Joy McCormack, 45, discovered last week when she accepted the invitation of a poll worker at NRG Park in Houston, Texas, and steered her SUV towards a tent in the parking lot. Not more than 20 minutes later, without ever leaving her vehicle, she had cast her ballot and was on her way.

“It’s pretty cool!” said Ms McCormack, an executive assistant and mother of three. “You can eat in your car while you’re waiting.”

The ability to cast one’s vote at a drive-through polling station counts as a small success for Chris Hollins, the top election official for Harris County, who has sought to make voting easier and more accessible during this pandemic election season while all around him Texas officials are doing the opposite.

Mr Hollins notched a larger victory on Thursday evening when the Texas Supreme Court shot down a challenge from the Republican party by ruling that drive-through voting — in a state that offers drive-through banking, liquor stores and even ammunition sales — was legal.

“It is a very straightforward way to make voting safer and easier for everybody in Harris County. But there are some who don’t really like the idea of people voting,” Mr Hollins, who holds law and business degrees from Harvard and Yale, and did a stint as a McKinsey consultant, said in an interview before the court decision.

Before Thursday’s ruling, Texas was earning distinction as one of the more intransigent states when it comes to making allowances for people to vote in a pandemic. It is one of six US states that requires citizens to ask permission to cast a mail ballot. To qualify, they must be either 65 or older, in prison, out of the county on election day or have a disability. A susceptibility to Covid is not necessarily an excuse. 

In July, Greg Abbott, Texas’ Republican governor, rejected a request from Mr Hollins to proactively send mail ballot applications and instructions to all registered voters, as some other states have done. Mr Abbott did agree to extend the early voting period by a week.

Then earlier this month, amid a backlash from his Republican base, the governor opted to limit each county to a single location where voters could drop off their ballots. That is almost comical in Harris County, which spans nearly 2,000 square miles, or roughly the size of Rhode Island, and counts 2.4m registered voters.

“He’s done some good things and some bad things,” Mr Hollins said of the governor. 

He reserved more scorn for Ken Paxton, the state attorney-general, who issued a letter last week challenging the legality of drive-through voting and raising the possibility that tens of thousands of these votes might be invalidated.

“Not a single thing the attorney-general has ever done has resulted in making it easier for registered voters to access the franchise. In fact, the opposite,” said Mr Hollins. 

Even so, Harris County is on track to shatter voting records. With more than a week before election day it had recorded more than 875,000 early votes — more than its entire haul of early votes from 2016. Drive-through votes have accounted for about 10 per cent of the 759,000 early ballots that were cast in person.

Some of that is no doubt down to the unique passions stirred by this contest. But it is also owing to changes implemented by Mr Hollins, 34, who is both the youngest and first black Harris County Clerk. He was appointed to the post only in June after his predecessor fell ill.

He and his team have tripled the number of early voting sites compared with four years ago and extended their hours. Some will be open around the clock next week. They embraced drive-through voting after talking to counterparts in Wisconsin, which experimented with it earlier this year.

“Many of the things we did with a focus on safety, they turn out to be things that we probably should be doing anyway,” Mr Hollins said, noting that voters “often asked our election workers: why weren’t we doing this before?”

All that voting comes at a cost: Harris County will spend $33m on this year’s election, compared with $4m in 2016. To pay for it, the county has tapped $24m from the CARES Act, which offers states and counties money for Covid-related expenses.

In practice, drive-through voting is much the same as the in-person variety. Voters drive into a large tent where they park and then must show their ID to a poll worker. They must switch off their electronic devices. They are then given a handheld voting machine to register their choices.

A key legal question was whether a tent rigged up in a parking lot qualified under Texas’ electoral code as a legitimate “polling place.” Beth Stevens, a Hollins adviser, was confident it did after a trial run in June during the primaries.

“It was very successful. Voters loved it,” she said. “They get to vote from the comfort of their car.”

But Mr Paxton argued in his letter that drive-through voting was a perversion of the long established practice of “kerbside” voting, in which election workers bring polling machines to those who are unable to leave their cars.

“Kerbside voting is not, as some have asserted contrary to Texas law, an option for any and all voters who simply wish to vote from the comfort of their cars when they are physically able to enter the polling place,” he wrote.

On Thursday, the court sided with Mr Hollins and Ms Stevens — and Ms McCormack. “It was so easy,” she said.

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