Anatomy of a Long, Hot Election Day at Harris County Precinct 344


[Image courtesy of houstonchronicle]

Last Thursday, I shared the story about a Hamilton County, OH pollworker who experienced a long day due to a variety of challenges … but there’s a story in today’s headlines that I think has to qualify as the most frustrating of Election Day. It comes to us from Harris County, TX courtesy of the Houston Chronicle:

First one machine blinked out. Then two were down. By 7:03 a.m., three minutes into regular voting Tuesday, six out of six devices were malfunctioning. It wasn’t long before the group of voters waiting to cast ballots at the Greater Love Missionary Baptist Church — most of them elderly, most of them African-American — began to despair.

“They feel like it’s a conspiracy,” said Amy McCan, the election judge at the polling station. “I’ve never seen my elderly frustrated like they were frustrated today.” She estimated that 15 or 20 voters, some with walkers, canes and accompanied by caregivers, opted to leave during that busy morning stretch.

Each set of three machines was linked like a daisy chain to an operating machine, and the electricity kept flickering in and out, taxing the breaker. An electrician said the wiring in the ramshackle outbuilding named Precinct 344’s polling place needed an overhaul. The wires might have been chewed by rodents. Two different Harris County election technicians came out at different times to unplug and reboot the system.

The set-up was working at 10:30 a.m. But by 2 p.m., four of the six machines were out again. “I can’t cut the A/C on because sparks are going to fly,” said McCan said, juggling two phone calls on her own and a borrowed cell phone. She leaned over an elbow to examine a machine’s display screen with a co-worker.

“We need a better polling location,” she said. “They need to X this one off. I’ve been telling them that for years.”

McCan’s story is typical – she started as a poll worker and eventually rose to a position of greater responsibility:

For more than two decades, McCan, 44, has been overseeing voting at this site just north of the 610 Loop. She first helped as a clerk in 1991… When she was 21, Rev. Samuel H. Smith, of Mt. Horeb Missionary Baptist, and a woman she knew as Miss McLemore, the previous judge, both encouraged McCan to take over the Greater Love polling location.

“They taught me to care for my voters and make it as easy as possible for them to vote,” she said. “I let them know what the provision of votes stands for. I have a lot of elderly here. That’s their right. All I can do is help them.”

Reading the story, I was struck by how frustrating the experience was for her – not because of the inconvenience to herself  but because of the effect it had on “her” voters:

Standing on the porch of the precinct’s outbuilding, she drew a deep breath, watching a county technician pour gas into a generator to provide backup electricity.

“My ancestors, their ancestors, fought for this right,” she said. “To see my elderly go through this was a problem for me. To go through what they went through and then have this… it is not fair.”

What’s great about elections in this country – and why I love working in this field – is because of the dedication of people like Ms. McCan, who work hard to make sure that people in her community have the opportunity to cast a ballot. Here’s hoping Precinct 344 can find a better and more reliable voting location before Election Day 2016 – but even more, here’s hoping the voters of the precinct can continue to count on dedicated election workers like Amy McCan.

Stay tuned …

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