HOUSTON, TEXAS—Chris Ponce, a 30-year-old martial arts instructor in a small town near Texas’ border with Mexico, was barred from voting because he couldn’t afford to replace his expired driver’s license.
Stevie Blakely, a lifelong voter in Houston, was denied a regular ballot because his name had been mysteriously dropped from the rolls.
Across the enormous state of Texas on Tuesday, voters encountered a wide range of problems at the polls—some stemming from the last-minute implementation of a strict voter ID law, and some based more on misinformation, intimidation and confusion.
The number of provisional ballots cast more than doubled since the last mid-term election in 2010—from 7,947 to 16,408, at the most recent count. It is not yet known how much of an influence the voter ID law had on this massive increase. Officials and volunteers have reported fewer called-in problems with IDs than expected, but the number of those without ID who did not attempt to vote, or who were turned away without a provisional ballot remains unknown.
Attorney Adam Laughton manned the Election Protection hotline in Houston, which received about 400 calls yesterday. Early in the morning, calls poured in about polling locations opening later than their 7 a.m. posted time—some as late as 8:30 a.m.—causing difficulties for voters who had counted on being able to vote on their way to work. And when those centers did finally open, several had malfunctioning machines.
A poll observer at the Fiesta polling place location who did not give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media told ThinkProgress he personally witnessed many voters give up and leave without casting a ballot. “The booths weren’t ready to go [when the polls opened],” he said. “People were discouraged. I saw several, several people leave and complain out loud about how it was running inefficiently, and saying, ‘If I don’t vote now, I can’t vote.'”
Another factor slowing down the Fiesta site was the lack of a computer. To verify the address of each voter, a clerk had to call the county office and ask them to look it up there. As the day went on, the poll observer saw many like Blakely who were purged from the rolls, and others who had had their polling place reassigned. “A majority if not a plurality of people weren’t in our book, including a lot of people who said they’ve been voting here forever,” he said. “Though a provisional ballot should be offered to every single person if they can’t vote, and that was not happening.”
Laughton said he too received numerous calls about poll workers “not being cooperative,” with provisional ballots and with language access. Houston is required by law to provide materials in English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese, but some poll workers reportedly refused to provide proper materials.
The poll observer also lamented the poor signage at the site, which was in a corner of the store invisible from the main doors, tucked between the produce section and boxes of candy.
“Anything to depress the turnout,” the poll observer said. “I’m not saying it’s nefarious but at the very least it’s not good. I’ve never watched the polls before and I’ve found it very disheartening. One vote lost is absolutely too many, and god knows how many people who showed up this morning couldn’t get back later.”
Alicia Pierce, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office, told ThinkProgress that she wasn’t “seeing a lot of confusion” around the law, because “Texans are already used to it.” But voters and monitors reported otherwise.
“I wasn’t aware they were doing a new law,” Chris Ponce told ThinkProgress. “I haven’t seen anything in the paper, on the Internet. If they have [put out materials] then they’re not doing it in the right place. They’re doing it all wrong.”
Pierce claimed the state ran a “comprehensive” education campaign around the law. But the state legislature allocated no funds for it. The state even suspended the entire free ID program even as it was pushing to reinstate the law in court.
And that free ID program has only served a tiny fraction of the valid Texan voters lacking an ID. Tom Vinger, the Press Secretary for the Texas Department of Public Safety, told ThinkProgress in an email that there were more than 2,100 inquiries from being seeking to get an “Election Identification Certificate,” but only 407 were issued before Tuesday. Vinger assured ThinkProgress that “many Texans already have the necessary photo identification for voting.” But many—more than half a million—do not. Among the more than 600,000 without an ID, people of color, women and students are disproportionately represented. It remains to be seen if more people will manage to get IDs before the next election.