“We have to do what the governor and the secretary of state say,” said Lee Parsley, an election judge at one Houston polling site, speaking through a white mask and behind a facial shield. By the early afternoon, no one in the largely Democratic area had arrived unmasked, he said.
Turnout was expected in any case to be low in the election, a primary runoff that included a heated race between Democrats to take on Senator John Cornyn. Voters have two weeks to cast their ballots early, a voting window that the governor, perhaps reflecting his confidence in the course of the pandemic, had stretched by a week, beginning it in June rather than in July. Early voting will continue for two weeks; Election Day is July 14.
The opening of the polls on Monday came after a lengthy legal effort by Texas Democrats to allow all voting-age residents to cast their ballots by mail as a safer alternative amid the pandemic. Those 65 or older are permitted to do so currently. The Democrats were unsuccessful in their attempts to broaden the law but were still planning to pursue other legal avenues in advance of the November general election.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said concerns about the virus would undoubtedly have an impact on turnout. “It can’t help but suppress the early in-person vote, at least marginally,” he said. By the afternoon, roughly 5,500 people had turned up to vote in Harris County, according to preliminary data from the county clerk’s office.
A spokesman for the governor did not respond to a request for comment about early voting and the pandemic.
State Representative Phil King, who represents two conservative North Texas counties just west of Fort Worth, said he believed Texans would be able to safely exercise their democratic rights without the option of mail-in ballots.
“Common sense dictates that we can be safe and go vote,” said Mr. King, a Republican House committee chairman and member of the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. “People go shopping, they go get groceries, they go to the doctor’s office. It’s not going to be any added risk going to the polling place.”
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