Friday, 27 Nov 2020

In Texas, the Polls Open for a Graveyard Shift

Hoping to make voting easier during the pandemic, officials opened several polling sites in Harris County, Texas, for overnight balloting last week. Thousands showed up.

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By Manny Fernandez and Tamir Kalifa

Photographs by Tamir Kalifa

HOUSTON — Felix Sylvester drove straight to the polling site after work and cast his ballot in a matter of minutes. There was no line, perhaps because it was a few minutes past 3 a.m.

The parking lot was lit up in the predawn darkness by towering light poles. Most of Houston was asleep — most, but not all. Mr. Sylvester, 65, voted early Friday at one of eight polling places across Harris County that, five days before the election, stayed open all night. For him, it was about more than convenience; it was probably the difference between voting and not voting.

Mr. Sylvester works at a grain elevator on the Houston Ship Channel. He had been working eight-hour and 12-hour shifts that made it almost impossible to cast a ballot during Texas’ early voting period, during which the polls have typically been open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“It would have been difficult, because if I work nights, I’m sleeping during the day,” he said. It happened that 3 a.m. was one time that worked for him.

The 2020 election now has something in common with 7-Eleven: 24-hour service.

From 7 a.m. Thursday to 7 p.m. Friday, the eight polling sites gave new meaning to the notion of early voting, operating in the cities of Houston, Pasadena and Cypress. Voters in the third-most-populous county in America cast their ballots at 2 a.m. as if it were 2 p.m., part of a push by officials in the predominantly Democratic county to expand voter access in the midst of a pandemic during the three-week early-voting period, which ended Friday.

The numbers made it clear that it was not a mere gimmick. At the peak nighttime hours — from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. — 10,250 people voted at the eight locations. More than 800 of those voters cast their ballots between midnight and 7 a.m., election officials said.

The late-night voters were college students and retirees, men and women, gay and straight, parents who brought their children and workers who walked in still wearing their work ID lanyards and nameplates.

Leslie Johnson, 29, who works for an oil-services company, finished work, went to the wrong polling site and finally voted at an overnight location shortly after 7 p.m. Richard Munive, 33, a bar back who is the son of a Colombian immigrant, clocked out around 1:30 a.m., switched out of his work shoes and voted by 2:30 a.m., a few hours before he started his second job at a T-shirt printing warehouse.

At three overnight polling sites, it was democracy in action, in the dark. The locations were near the old Astrodome at the NRG Park stadium complex, the Tracy Gee Community Center in a diverse neighborhood north of Chinatown and a facility in a historically Black neighborhood called Kashmere Gardens.

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