PLANO, Texas – As coronavirus cases skyrocket in Texas, Regina Greenwell showed up to vote Monday bent on minimizing the risks.
She wore a mask, which are not required in Texas, where the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations have more than tripled in the last month. She scoped out the line from her car to game how long she would be indoors. She brought her own pen but inside was a touchscreen system with disposable latex finger guards for voters to use.
“We'd like to make it to the November election,” said Paul Greenwell, her 70-year-old husband.
Three months after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott postponed primary runoffs to July 14 — saying at the time that sticking to the original May election “would threaten the health and safety of many" — Texas is voting at a moment when the outbreak is far more dire. Confirmed coronavirus cases quadrupled in June, Houston hospitals are filling up and Abbott is retreating from one of America's swiftest reopenings by shuttering bars and scaling back restaurant service.
The result is that at a moment when Abbott is urging the public to stay home, thousands are starting to go to the polls.
And by the looks of it, even more are still going to the gym: At the Carpenter Park Recreation Center, a polling location in the Dallas suburb of Plano, most of the steady lunchtime traffic heading in on the first day of early voting were there to work out, not cast a ballot.
"It’s a joke,” said Gilbert Hernandez, 52, who arrived to vote in the Democratic primary with his family, all of whom wore masks. “The way that our government has responded to this crisis, it’s compounding a very serious problem.”
The pandemic has caused unprecedented election disruptions around the U.S. as states have pushed back their elections to manage an onslaught of poll worker cancellations and consolidation of polling places. On Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence wore a mask in Dallas and praised Abbott for his decisions to reopen the state and then dial back those plans, saying “about two weeks ago something changed.”
One consolation for elections officials is that primary runoffs typically have low turnout in Texas, where a growing blue streak in America's biggest red state is giving Democrats hope. Their voters are picking a U.S. Senate nominee to run against Republican incumbent John Cornyn, choosing between Air Force veteran MJ Hegar and state Sen. Royce West.
There are also closely watched GOP congressional runoffs, including President Donald Trump's former doctor, Ronny Jackson, running for a seat in the Texas Panhandle.
A steady trickle of eager morning voters — all arriving in masks — kept poll workers busy at Davis Elementary School in Austin. Voting machines were six feet apart and wiped down frequently. Poll workers sat behind plastic shields, and blue tape on the floor encouraged voters in line to keep their distance from one another.
Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County Clerk who oversees Austin's elections, recruited about 80 poll workers on standby after having a slew of no-shows on Super Tuesday. Abbott doubled the amount of early voting days for the runoff but DeBeauvoir said the state mostly just provided protocols the county already had in place.
“It was nice that they tried, but it wasn't all that helpful,” DeBeauvoir said.
Democrats want Texas to let all of the state's 16 million registered voters cast ballots by mail, but the state is fighting to keep its restrictions in place. On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an emergency request to expand mail-in voting in Texas, which Trump tweeted was a “big WIN” as he alleges without evidence that widespread mail-in voting will lead to rampant fraud.
Linda Bianchi, who declined to give her age but described herself as senior citizen, voted in the Republican primary in Plano without wearing a mask and said she didn't feel the need to take extra precautions.
“Do not do mail-in ballots. No. Come to vote. We did during the war,” Bianchi said. “It’s our wonderful right as Americans.”
Weber reported from Austin.