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American dream or next nightmare? A review of drive-thru voting

Casting my ballot early in a drive-thru voting booth was one of my more dystopian experiences of 2020, which is saying something.

Thursday afternoon, I drove to the downtown drive-thru poll inside the Toyota Tundra Garage next to the Toyota Center. Thankfully, nothing about the ballot itself was sponsored.

There aren't many signs directing voters to the entrance to the drive-thru poll inside the Tundra Garage in downtown Houston.

There aren’t many signs directing voters to the entrance to the drive-thru poll inside the Tundra Garage in downtown Houston.

Jay R. Jordan / Chron

A police officer guided me into the garage entrance — forcing me to up-ramp the wrong way — until I reached the first elevated level. Poll workers motioned me through a snake of cones, akin to a COVID-19 testing site.

Luckily, I didn’t have this experience:

My first stop was when a masked poll worker told me I needed to turn all of my electronics off (I already knew that, thanks to our old friend Curbside Larry). He said I should treat my car like any other voting booth — no photos, no electronics, no recordings.

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He guessed that I’d be driving down to row three, because that looked to contain the next available so-called ballot box. The next worker I encountered sent me to row four.

From there, I pulled into a parking spot next to a voter assistant who asked for my ID. She checked me in, had me fill out a quick form (I’m late on updating my driver’s license address) and gave me a little slip that has your four-digit code to activate the ballot.

As she handed me the freshly sanitized ballot machine, I spotted two cars nose-to-nose in my side-view mirror. There, two men were jumping a dead car battery as I made my selections.

Another car I spotted had a bumper sticker for some local race (I forgot which one), that made me wonder: are some of the rules different when it comes to voting from your car?

If you walk in and vote, you cannot be wearing any clothing, buttons or other items supporting any candidate. I guess it’s a rule to help voters maintain a clear head.

But when you’re drive-thru voting, are you expected to cover any political bumper stickers? The Harris County Clerk’s Office says they’re okay on cars, according to KHOU’s Cheryl Mercedes. You can even wear campaign gear so long as you stay in your car.

I finished my selections and pressed the red “CAST BALLOT” button. The ballot machine was a bit difficult to move in and out of my driver’s seat window, but I eventually handed it off.

I was worried for a second, but the poll worker handed me an “I voted” sticker just before I pulled forward. Score.

Like marking tackles on a football helmet.

Like marking tackles on a football helmet.

Jay R. Jordan / Chron

One short hop over a speed bump and I was back driving past red wrong-way signs in the parking garage, though it was indeed my way out.

The entire experience lasted less than 20 minutes for me, although a police officer directing traffic outside told me it was busier the previous two days. That’s when Harris County voters broke turnout records previously set in the 2016 election.

Ultimately, the drive-thru option is a safe and efficient way to vote, despite an 11th-hour lawsuit from Texas Republicans. There are a handful of locations around Harris County, and you can check out wait times on the Harris County Clerk’s Office website.

But when you do go to vote, regardless of how, try to fight the feeling that you’re somehow in the beginning of a really crappy sci-fi movie.