How We Broke Voting Records in Harris County

Light blue background with the city of Houston split up by ward similar to a puzzle and toned in blue; in black and white, there are voting elements including a sign for a polling place, a sign for the Texas Medical Center, a ballot drop box, an early voting sign and a drive-thru voting sign

When I was appointed Harris County Clerk in 2020, my focus wasn’t politics.  It was problem-solving. 

The pandemic resulted in staggering barriers to safe and inclusive voting. In addition to some state and federal leaders actively attempting to undermine our election systems for their own political gain, the threat of contracting COVID-19 forced many to wonder if they would have to choose between their lives and their constitutional rights. My job was to make sure that no one was forced to make that choice.

My first day in office was June 1, 2020 — and the first election we had to administer, in the middle of the pandemic, began that month, on June 29. My team started out with a white board, listing out problems voters might face and not checking them off until we found solutions. 

Here’s what we came up with: 

The problem: Social distancing guidelines required us to reduce the number of voting stations inside each polling location, which might make lines longer.

Our solution: Triple the number of early voting locations from the last presidential election, create an app that informs voters about how long each line is in real time and encourage them to go to nearby locations with no wait.

The problem: Medically vulnerable voters felt unsafe voting indoors, or potentially waiting in line with hundreds of other people.

Our solution: Open drive-thru voting centers, where any registered voter can cast votes from the safety and convenience of their vehicles.

The problem: Doctors, nurses, and thousands of other essential workers — many working double-shifts to keep the rest of us safe — could not vote conveniently during regular daytime hours.

Our solution: Offer 24-hour voting at locations like the Texas Medical Center, giving any registered voter the opportunity to cast a ballot at a time convenient for them.

Every action has a reaction. As we ticked through the problems one-by-one, removing barriers to safe and accessible voting, politics rose up as an even bigger barrier than the pandemic. It seems silly to admit this now, but at the time, I was honestly shocked at the pushback.

An onslaught of ill-conceived GOP lawsuits attempted to stall our progress.  And of course, they failed. Because if you tell any Texan I know that they can’t do something — like, say, vote — just watch how fast we’ll prove you wrong.

In the end, we broke all records for voting in Harris County, with 1,656,686 votes, including nearly 180,000 mail-in votes and more than 1.2 million early in-person votes. Nearly 130,000 voters used drive-thrus, and more than 17,000 voted at a time of night when the polls would normally have been closed.

When I say “we” broke all records, I mean “we,” all throughout the Houston area. More than 300 civil servants at the County Clerk’s Office worked to make our vision for democracy a reality. More than 11,000 volunteers served as election workers in spite of the dangers posed by the pandemic. Our community partners spanned a spectrum from the Houston Rockets to the Houston Food Bank. Churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and community centers became — for a few weeks — centers of democracy. Businesses encouraged their employees to serve. 

No matter how many barriers the opposition puts in our way, we have to rise above them and keep voting. If we can protect our sacred right to vote in the middle of a deadly pandemic, we can protect it from greedy and power-hungry politicians who are on the wrong side of history.

Now, as the pandemic subsides, it has become clear that while we won a significant battle, the fight for free and fair elections continues. A shrinking minority of powerful people are pulling out all the stops to stay in power. 

Our elders sacrificed so much to secure the right to vote because they recognized the immediate impact and the generational impact of elections. When elections are free and fair, we all get to determine the direction of our country, our state, our city. And when we show up to vote, we all get to have a say in shaping possibilities for our children. That is power.

State officials in Austin aim to stay in power by taking away ours — the power to vote that belongs to each and every citizen of these United States, whether you’re black, brown, man, woman, gay, straight, rich, poor, religious or indifferent.

Their weapon, for now, is Senate Bill 1, signed into law last year after a bitter and epic fight. S.B. 1 severely limits the ability of counties to expand voting options. It specifically bans overnight early voting hours and drive-thru voting, the reforms we enacted during the pandemic. 

S.B. 1 erected more barriers to mail-in voting, leading to voter confusion and the disenfranchisement of more than 24,000 Texas voters in the March 2022 primary election. It includes avenues to imprison volunteers who assist voters and election officials who distribute vote-by-mail applications to seniors and voters with disabilities.

It is shameful to be sure. Yet, shame is no match for the corrupting influence of power. So we — we, the people — need to use our power in response: the power to vote.

No matter how many barriers the opposition puts in our way, we have to rise above them and keep voting. If we can protect our sacred right to vote in the middle of a deadly pandemic, we can protect it from greedy and power-hungry politicians who are on the wrong side of history.

I continue to be inspired by my experience in 2020. By the countless heroes who worked to preserve our fragile democracy at a point of great vulnerability. By those who demonstrated, time and time again, how and why every vote counts.

During our 24-hour voting period, there was a nurse who literally broke down in tears. She had been working 12- to 14-hour shifts back-to-back since February, and she found out that not only was there a voting center right there at Texas Medical Center, but that it was going to remain open overnight. It was one more thing that she didn’t have to worry about in her life.

I was moved to tears myself when I heard about a couple, both of them over 70 — they’d been married for 40 years —  who had never voted before. They came out to vote this time because it was made simple for them.

Every action has a reaction. And now that vote suppressors in the Texas legislature have taken their best shot, it’s our turn.

We will prevail in the fight for free and fair elections.  We will answer the call so that our nation, under God, indivisible, can endure and so that government of the people, by the people, for the people, can prevail for this generation and the next.  And we will do it together. 

Chris Hollins served as Harris County Clerk in 2020 and is now running for mayor of Houston.