By STEFAN MODRICH
Yonelly Gutierrez got up early Tuesday to vote at Jones Creek Ranch Park in Richmond. Her parents were in line ahead of her even before the polls opened at 8 a.m.
But Gutierrez was one of hundreds of Fort Bend County voters who experienced a delay of at least an hour because of a technical malfunction on the first day of early voting in Texas. According to Fort Bend County Elections Administrator John Oldham, the county’s electronic poll book check-in system was set to the incorrect date, and voters were unable to cast their ballots until the issue was resolved later Tuesday morning.
Gutierrez, the president of the University of Houston Hispanic Alumni Association, said she and her parents left frustrated after waiting for two hours without being able to vote.
Oldham said his staff identified the issue at 7:20 a.m., and a team of county IT workers had to scramble to patch together a solution at each voting site on an individual basis.
Gutierrez said she wondered “how the poll location was chosen, published on the website, signs were put up at the location, yet voting machines weren’t checked the night before to ensure everything would run smoothly?”
Oldham said the mishap was a result of human error, and not a mechanical issue with the voting machines, because the date isn’t readily visible in the device’s user interface.
“When we started setting our elections up, early voting was supposed to start (Oct. 18),” Oldham said. “When the governor extended that, we never caught that because all of our testing is done in test mode and it doesn’t care when the start date is.”
By about 10:30 a.m., Oldham said most of the 30 early voting locations were back up and running.
Fort Bend County Judge KP George was one of several officials at the Smart Financial Centre polling site in Sugar Land on Tuesday. He stayed at the site until it was fully operational around 11 a.m.
Missouri City’s official Twitter account said all of its locations, including the Missouri City Community Center which was down earlier, were functional as of 4:30 p.m.
“I am extremely disappointed with the technical glitches that riddled Fort Bend County Election machines this morning,” George tweeted Tuesday morning. “Those who are responsible will be held accountable. In an era where voter suppression is real, I will authorize a full investigation and call for accountability.”
George later announced in a tweet that early voting hours will be extended until 7 p.m. for all early voting days except for the last three days of early voting (Oct. 28-30), when polls close at 9 p.m.
Taral Patel, George’s chief of staff, said an investigation into the malfunction of the machines was underway. Wesley Wittig, the county’s executive assistant district attorney, confirmed via e-mail that an investigation had begun.
“Again, to emphasize, there is nothing wrong with our voting equipment,” Oldham said. “It was our check-in system. If you can’t check people in, they can’t vote.”
Oldham said his staff will be at voting sites at the end of early voting tonight to install a new file in the electronic poll books to ensure that the check-in process will work properly Wednesday.
Gutierrez said voters at her polling place were wearing their masks in line and remained socially distant.
“This is the first time I have waited more than 10-20 minutes to vote in Fort Bend in the 10 years I’ve voted,” Gutierrez said. “I know it’s a privilege not to wait long.”
While she would have preferred the familiarity and convenience of her home precinct, Gutierrez said she wants to make sure she won’t encounter the same issues next time.
“I still plan on voting early,” Gutierrez said. “But I will go to another location although this location is literally right across from our house.”