HOUSTON — Across the sprawling expanse of Harris County, voters came all day Thursday. They came at midnight, and then past it, long into the early hours of Friday morning.
If Democrats’ long-held dreams of turning Texas blue come true on Election Day, much of it will be because of the nearly 5 million people in Harris County — home to Houston, the most diverse city in the country, and a swelling population that has become more and more Democratic since 2016.
It will also be because Harris County took on a mission to make it easy for its citizens to vote, even in the midst of a pandemic — often in the face of intense opposition from Republicans. They crafted large drive-thru voting centers modeled after fast-food restaurants like Sonic, situating them in downtown parking lots left empty by the pandemic.
And on Thursday, the county took a page from the city of Las Vegas and allowed residents to vote overnight, opening eight early voting places for 24 hours straight.
The 24-hour polling places were chosen to draw nurses and oil refinery workers; people from deep-blue precincts and dark-red ones; churchgoers and college students; aficionados of taco trucks and nachos.
By the time early voting had ended altogether in Texas on Friday, more than 1,435,000 people had voted in Harris County, significantly more than the total number of people who voted in the county in 2016. More than 9 million people had voted early in the state overall.
Harris County’s plan worked. This is what it looked like in the 24 hours that helped make that possible.
7 A.M.: TEXAS MEDICAL CENTER COMMONS, HOUSTON
The night shift is ending, but it’s still dark as polls open at the world’s largest medical center, where more than 100,000 people work in a forest of hospitals, medical schools, and specialty centers.
Nurses in a rainbow of differently colored scrubs come to vote, some of them rushing off to start their shift. One pauses to take a photograph of her small, round “I Voted” sticker in front of the enormous blue wall of a fountain. A nurse named Erisha votes for the first time: She just got her American citizenship.
As the sun starts to rise, Andre, a resident physician just off the night shift, stops immediately outside the door to place his sticker onto the badges that hang around his neck. His finger is still encased in a white latex sleeve.
He’s here to vote, he says, because of the presidential election.
“Being a physician, I guess I’d say the priorities of the many outweigh the priorities of a few,” he says.
Andre isn’t sure whether he believes Texas will flip to Democrats or not, but he says seeing the surge in voter turnout across the state has left him hopeful. “Something has pulled people to vote, whether or not they close the gap.”
11 A.M.: EAST HARRIS COUNTY ACTIVITY CENTER, PASADENA
In front of the low brick community center, an employee in an Astros ball cap raises two enormous flags: first the American flag, then Texas, almost as big.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Harris County by the biggest margin for a Democrat in years, and the county went even bluer in 2018’s elections. But this is the deep-red edge of the enormous county, and the 24-hour voting center here in the city of Pasadena is meant to draw oil refinery workers whose shifts extend long into the night. Next door to Pasadena is the city of Deer Park, whose precincts Trump won in 2016 by 40 and 50-point margins.
Kristen, a Republican voter in Pasadena, usually votes on Election Day. But this year, she says, she felt even more urgency to vote. “It’s the most important vote I ever had,” she says. “It’s a turning point for the way our country goes.”
Isaac, a plumber in Pasadena, thought the country was “doing pretty good” before the coronavirus pandemic hit. His friends in the oil industry were doing well. The cost of living was low. Salaries were high.
He wants things to stay that way, he says. So he voted for Trump, and thinks the rest of Texas will too.
“The media can sway a lot of people's opinions, but the deep-down roots are the same.”
A young blonde woman wearing a yellow terry cloth costume, her legs striped in furry pink and orange, jogs past Isaac into the polling place, her car keys still in one hand, a paper mask pressed to her face with the other.
“I can’t talk,” Big Bird calls. “I’ve got to get back to work!”
Less than 10 minutes later, Big Bird emerges into the parking lot, her vote cast.
5 P.M.: JUERGEN'S HALL COMMUNITY CENTER, CYPRESS
It’s nearly impossible to find somewhere to park during the after-work rush at one of the busiest centers in Harris County, a historic former dance hall on the side of a busy freeway. Two dozen voters form a line down a long ramp, a chill setting in in the late-afternoon sun.
Cypress, an unincorporated community strung along the highway on Harris County’s northern edge, is solidly conservative.
Dustin and Evianna are both first-time voters. Evianna, 19, works at Target and voted for Biden, motivated by women’s rights and social justice. Dustin, 21, voted for Trump. But Evianna says it doesn’t strain their relationship.
“We’re both liberal,” she explains. “He’s just a Trump supporter.”
“Biden’s been in office for 40 years, and he hasn’t done anything,” Dustin says by way of explanation.
7 P.M.: KASHMERE MULTI-SERVICE CENTER, HOUSTON
As dusk turns to night in Kashmere Gardens, a historically Black neighborhood in East Houston, Morris and Sam pose for a selfie in front of the senior center after voting.
“It’s our date night,” Sam says. She gestures to Morris. “His choice.”
Will Texas finally turn blue this election? “It already is, in my opinion,” says Sam. “The people were just hidden.” Maybe this time, she thinks, those people will get a chance to become visible.
Morris came to vote in a pair of dark blue coveralls with a reflective stripe across the arms and legs. He and Sam both voted for Biden. But Morris, who works in the oil and natural gas industry, had some hesitation. He worries about what some Biden allies, like Kamala Harris, have said about fracking — it’s how he makes his living.
“It weighed on my vote, yes,” Morris says. But he decided he trusts Biden. He says he’s spent enough time in deep-red parts of Texas, though, to doubt seriously that Texas is going to tip to Democrats.
Later, the Patels, who work at a motel nearby, show up to cast their very first votes. Hillary Clinton won 98% of the votes in this precinct. But Bhavna and her husband, Paresh, aren’t thinking about political parties. They just want to vote.
“We’re just learning how things work in this country,” Paresh says.
10 P.M.: TRACY GEE COMMUNITY CENTER, HOUSTON
By now, the traditional early voting places have closed across Harris County, but a steady stream of cars are pulling into the lot of the Tracy Gee Community Center, where a taco truck paid for by the Harris County Democrats is offering free tacos to voters.
A man rushes inside to vote, leaving his family waiting in an idling white van. When he runs out ten minutes later, he clicks his heels once, then twice, like a leprechaun. He raises his fists over his head before he ducks into the car.
Pharren, who arrives at Tracy Gee at 10:30, says she was relieved to find out about the 24-hour polling places. She’s a new mom to a 3-month-old baby whose bedtime is at 9:30 — sometimes later. Even a late 10 p.m. closing time wouldn’t work for her.
“This was a lot easier,” Pharren says.
Vaughan arrives even later, past 11, after putting in long hours running his own company. He voted third-party in 2016, but this time, he voted for Biden.
“It was with my conscience more than in previous years,” he says. “The way this country has handled COVID has been a complete failure. It was an easy vote for me.”
At 11:38, Antonia emerges jubilantly from the community center with her new wife, Kandice, and poses for a selfie. Antonia’s flight from New Jersey touched down in Houston at 10:02 p.m. She and Kandice went straight to vote.
“It felt amazing,” she says. “I flew all the way here for this.”
They’re motivated by everything, but especially the ongoing pandemic. Both women work in healthcare: “We have to deal with this all day, every day.”
They pray Texas turns blue this time. But at this point, “It shouldn’t be between Democratic and Republican. It’s a humanity thing.”
1 A.M.: PRAIRIE VIEW A&M UNIVERSITY NORTHWEST HOUSTON CENTER, CYPRESS
It’s after midnight, but a small line has formed outside the voting center on a satellite campus of Prairie View A&M, a public historically Black college. One man stops short when he sees the line, surprised. He goes back to his truck and returns zipping up a green camo sweatshirt.
The line is gone by the time Dwight arrives at 12:40. A veteran with disabilities, he says he saw a story about the county’s 24-hour voting centers on the news and waited 'til late at night, when he could be sure to avoid crowded polling places and the risk of COVID.
“I’m concerned about the things my mom is concerned about, like social security, the virus,” Dwight says.
He’s “hopeful” about Biden winning Texas. “I think the younger generations could make a big difference this time.”
When she shuffles out of the polling place at 1:03, Katy looks a little tired, wearing zebra-print pajama pants under her warm coat. She voted days ago, but tonight, she brought two of her children, both first-time voters.
“They’re night owls,” Katy says. “When I went, they were like, ‘It’s too early to get up.’ But I figured they’d be up gaming.”
Katy was a lifelong Republican, she says, until four years ago. Now she’s swung in the other direction — an avowed liberal who mourned the loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and rails against for-profit colleges and prisons.
Her son, Ian, says he “can’t wait” for Texas to turn blue. “Even if it still goes red, it gets a little closer every year.”
After Katy’s car pulls away, the lot at Prairie View is empty of voters’ cars for only a few minutes. At 1:15, one giant truck rolls into a parking space, and another follows.
5 A.M.: TEXAS MEDICAL CENTER COMMONS, HOUSTON
In the predawn hours at the medical center, things have been “a little slow,” the precinct judge says. There were a dozen or so voters here after midnight, but not many more.
By 5:30, a few day shift employees start trickling in. Steven, an administrative assistant at one of the hospitals, works a shift that starts at 7, the same time polls usually open. That means he’s never had time to vote early — and after work, he says, “Other things just happen.”
Steven is a former foster care kid, and in this election, that’s what he cares about. He’s not worrying about whether or not Democrats win Texas; he’s just thinking about kids in the same position he was in.
Eric starts work at a hospital nearby at 7, too. The 24-hour polling place meant an easy opportunity to cast a ballot before work, and he was in and out just after 6.
Eric admits: He's actually never voted before.
“I’ve been a Democrat for a long time,” he says. “I’ve been knowledgeable enough about electoral votes, that it’s seemed kind of — self-defeating before. I mean, Texas hasn’t gone blue since 1976. That’s longer than I’ve been alive.”
So did he decide to vote because he thinks that in 2020, Texas might finally flip to Democrats?
“No,” Eric says flatly. "I don't think it will." He pauses. There’s a lot of things that worry him: the environment, immigration, the virus gripping the country.
“I think there’s just been enough things done,” he says. So today, he showed up to vote. ●