Voter anxiety was palpable in Denton County on Tuesday, primed by presidential campaign vitriol and compounded locally by the failure of some election equipment.
Voters in affected precincts were reluctant to leave their paper ballots in a secure storage box, wondering whether their ballot was ripe for tampering. The possibility of vigilante “poll watchers” spurred many people to vote early, while others used the buddy system to walk to their voting location on Tuesday. Voters weren’t always reassured by police presence, either. And with many schools serving as election sites, a few parents opted to keep their children home from school Tuesday.
Cynthia Koiner told the Denton Record-Chronicle that she wasn’t the only voter in far northwestern Denton County on Tuesday morning who followed the advice of political party leaders by asking for a paper ballot. But when she walked into the polling place at Bolivar Baptist Church, she learned the elections scanner wasn’t ready to count her ballot.
“When I got there, there were about five or six people standing to the side holding their ballots unsure of what to do,” Koiner said.
Like them, she was reluctant to place her paper ballot into a side slot instead of up top, through the scanner where her vote would have been tallied. The slot is built into every scanner for secure storage of ballots until they can be counted.
In Denton, poll workers at the Civic Center didn’t tell Josephine Clark about the scanning problem before handing her the paper ballot she requested. It wasn’t until she handed the poll worker her ballot that she learned of the problem.
“They put it into the side slot to get scanned later,” Clark said. “I wanted to be there to watch my ballot being scanned, but I couldn’t.”
The Denton County Democratic Party office got several calls from voters who were concerned about the problem, according to party chairwoman Phyllis Wolper. Other precincts saw what Koiner and Clark reported — people standing around reluctant to give up their marked ballot without seeing it scanned first, Wolper said.
Denton County Elections Administrator Lannie Noble confirmed that many ballot scanners were delivered in “test mode” to polling precincts. The failure didn’t happen at all 125 polling locations, but Noble couldn’t say how many machines had to be swapped out Tuesday morning.
“We waited for them to call,” Noble said.
However, no voter was turned away if the person wanted to cast a paper ballot, he said. But instead of immediately being run through the scanner and counted, voters deposited their paper ballots in the secure storage bin at the bottom of the scanner machine, Noble said.
In Corinth, a uniformed citizen-on-patrol volunteer kept watch over the parking lot outside the polling location at City Hall. But at least one voter became agitated by the armed police presence at a school voting site, Wolper said.
Denton County Republican Party chairwoman Lisa Hendrickson did not return a call for comment on voter calls to the GOP on Tuesday.
Texas Woman’s University students Nichole Morales and Elya Morgan walked together to the Denton Civic Center during the lunch hour to vote. Morgan voted early but agreed to accompany Morales on Election Day. It was the first time to vote for both of them.
Outside, a volunteer stood wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the “election protection” phone number, 866-OUR-VOTE, ready to help anyone who might be turned away because of confusion over the state’s voter ID laws.
In Shady Shores, one voter refused to identify himself using his driver’s license and instead asked elections officials to fill out an affidavit, according to election judge Nick Augustine.
Given the amount of voter anxiety displayed on national media, Augustine said he expected more questions and concerns from voters. Poll workers were doing what they could to keep things neighborly in their small precinct, greeting voters and sending them out the door with candy and “I Voted” stickers.
Some Denton school district parents announced their intention to keep their children home from school Tuesday, after learning their campus would be a voting location. Voters cast ballots at eight campuses in Denton. However, school district spokesman Mario Zavala said there was no measurable difference in attendance Tuesday.
After Denton County commissioners canvass the vote on Nov. 22, officials will debrief and analyze election administration, said County Judge Mary Horn.
Denton County elections officials hit two big snags with equipment during this election cycle, which exacerbated voter anxiety.
“It just should not have happened, but it did happen,” Horn said. “Everybody is so sensitive to voter fraud, and understandably so.”
Elections officials had problems with a different piece of equipment during the first day of early voting that prevented some people from voting. Those voters had to return later when the machines were reset.
County elections administration officials, local party officials and election judges get together after every election to debrief. However, Horn wouldn’t speculate on the outcome of this election review.
“I’m sure after our next discussion about the election, we’ll talk about the elections administration and what the future holds,” Horn said.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.