By Alexa Ura, Texas Tribune
Thousands of Texans’ votes were thrown out during the last presidential and midterm elections after they showed up to vote at the wrong polling location on Election Day.
An unknown number of other potential voters showed up at the wrong location and left without casting the placeholder ballot that would’ve recorded their failed effort to vote. There’s no way of tracking whether they made it to the correct polling location.
With expectations high that the 2020 presidential election could pack polling locations like never before, county election officials across Texas are working fast to ditch precinct-based voting and instead open up every polling location to all voters regardless of where they live in a county. That electoral endeavor — already in place in a fifth of Texas counties — has been taken up this year in both blue urban metros and Republican-leaning suburbs, encompassing the state’s most populous and fastest-growing regions.
And it carries the potential to transform Election Day voting by making it more accessible in a state where more than 2 million voters wait until that day to cast their ballots. Instead of waiting in potentially long lines at their assigned voting sites, voters in large swaths of the state would be freed from precinct boundaries in order to gain a multitude of polling place options.
County clerks and election administrators are selling the countywide polling locations — also known as vote centers — as a way to stop disenfranchising the thousands of Texans whose votes are regularly lost to confusion over which polling place they’re supposed to use, and a route to potentially boosting turnout rates across the state.
“With vote centers, guess what, you’re never going to be in the wrong precinct,” Dallas County elections administrator Toni Pippins-Poole said at a recent community meeting to introduce the countywide voting model to residents. “It’s going to be an increase in votes just because [voters] won’t be rejected.”
But even fervent supporters of countywide voting, who have publicly endorsed county efforts to implement it, are proceeding cautiously.
The switch from precinct-based voting locations to countywide vote centers is often followed by closures and consolidations of polling places both for logistical and cost-saving reasons. Because the criteria for those changes is typically based, in part, on traffic at each voting site, community leaders and voting rights advocates are wary that could translate to more polling location closures in areas with predominantly Hispanic, black and lower-income residents, who participate in elections at lower rates than white and more affluent Texans.
“Our concern is to make sure that we increase the likelihood of people voting,” James Douglas, head of the NAACP branch in Houston, warned the Harris County Commissioner’s Court earlier this year. “This ought not be about money.”
A familiar concept
The Texas counties looking to implement countywide voting this year are by no means trailblazers.
Lubbock County was the first to nix precinct boundaries and piloted countywide voting in 2006. By the 2018 general election, more than 50 other counties, including Travis County, had joined the list of those approved to run vote centers. And Texas is among more than a dozen states that allow them.
But 2020 could be the first major election during which the state’s five largest counties, where 42% of registered voters lived in the last election, will allow residents to cast their ballots at any polling location on Election Day.
Although provisional ballots are used to record a person’s vote when there are questions about eligibility or if a person is at the wrong precinct location, the ballots fall short of fully illustrating the scope of precinct-based voting problems because there’s no way of tracking voters who showed up at the wrong voting site and then went home without voting provisionally. But data collected by the Texas Civil Rights Project showed that the number of rejected provisional ballots cast by voters who showed up at the wrong location crept up from 2,810 in 2016 to roughly 4,230 last year in the state’s four largest counties — Harris, Dallas, Bexar and Tarrant, which are all working to transition to the vote center model.
More than half of those recorded rejections came out of Harris County, where Diane Trautman, a Democrat who was elected county clerk in 2018, moved quickly to implement vote centers and received approval to use a May municipal election as a trial run.
Trautman — like county officials in Dallas and Tarrant — has vowed to leave all existing polling locations in place through 2020. Opening up its 700 polling locations to all voters will make Harris one of the nation’s largest counties running vote centers.
Still, community leaders were troubled by a portion of the county’s written plan to make countywide voting permanent. That plan lists “voter turnout” first under the criteria to be considered for possible future polling place consolidations.
“This is going to be a question and a test for all the larger counties that are going forward” with vote centers, Trautman said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.
In weighing polling place closures, counties adopting vote centers typically consider factors like turnout and Wi-Fi connectivity. Vote centers depend on e-pollbooks, which electronically record whether a voter has already cast a ballot, and must be networked with other polling sites.
In Dallas County, election officials are reviewing whether to consolidate dozens of voting sites that are serving voters from multiple precincts and what to do with polling locations that are in close proximity. Community members there warned against closures primarily based on voter turnout even if other voting sites appeared to be nearby.
“Being half a mile is not across the street. Having to cross the freeway is not across the street. We do not support the closures,” said Kimberly Olsen, political field director for the Texas Organizing Project, which advocates for communities of color and low-income Texans.
Trautman noted any changes in Harris County would be run by a community advisory committee with an eye toward preserving polling locations that traditionally serve voters of color, residents who speak different languages and people with disabilities, but it’s unlikely the county would move too far from the current number of polling locations. And she said she would not trade tradition, especially in areas where voters have cast their ballots at the same polling place for 100 years, for county cost-savings.
“We have no intention of disturbing that,” Trautman said. “I don’t care if two people voted in that location.”
Potential site closures
Fears of polling location closures after a transition to countywide voting are not unfounded. Reports prepared by the secretary of state’s office every two years indicate more than 150 voting site closures or consolidations in Texas can be attributed to the statewide shift toward vote centers in recent years.
And state law allows counties moving to vote centers to reduce the number of polling locations to 65% in the first election the model is in use and to 50% after that.
Although the Texas Association of Election Administrators generally advises against immediately reducing voting sites, some of the counties jumping into countywide voting this year plan to do just that for the upcoming constitutional election.
Bexar County is the only major county that has not vowed to keep all existing polling locations and may reduce its 286 Election Day sites by up to 20%.
In Hays County, a suburban county south of Austin, election officials are proposing 36 voting sites — down from 39 in the last election.
In rural Henderson County, election officials are considering nixing up to 10 of the 27 voting sites they have previously used, but they haven’t settled on a final count.
“It just makes sense that you wouldn’t continue to run a polling place that’s not really having a lot of activity because it costs quite a bit of money to pay poll workers and to be there the full two weeks plus Election Day,” said Jennifer Anderson, the Hays County election administrator. “But we wouldn’t ever close a polling place that was being utilized specifically by a certain group of people that weren’t voting anywhere else in the county.”
The possibility of closures and consolidations down the road was also cause for concern for county commissioners, which resulted in an unusual echoing among Democratic and Republican officials — who are often on opposite sides of voting rights conversations — to ensure that no changes would be made without their signoff.
Uneasiness among county commissioners from both parties was spurred, in part, by the effect closures could have on voters with limited mobility. At one of the first meetings on the issue, Harris County commissioners considered a scenario in which a voter who relies on public transportation can’t easily move on to a different polling location if there’s a long line at the voting site closest to him or her.
“Texas has a rather ignoble history as it relates to voting rights — a long history of it,” said County Commissioner Rodney Ellis. “And sometimes, as big as our region is, not having a car is like having to pay a poll tax.”
Ellis also joined voting rights advocates in signaling concerns that closures based on turnout could go a long way in permanently entrenching disparities in areas of Texas where people are already disengaged.
It’s incumbent on county officials to take a holistic view to closures and weigh more heavily in favor of communities that have been historically underserved over cutting costs, said Beth Stevens, the voting rights legal director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, which endorses vote centers and is working in several of the counties considering a switch to countywide voting.
“It really, truly will be the responsibility of the county officials making those decisions to make sure it’s not done in a way that’s discriminatory,” Stevens said.
For decades, a federal safeguard required Texas and its municipalities to preclear any changes to elections, including polling location closures, by the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court to ensure they wouldn’t discriminate against voters of color.
But the U.S. Supreme Court wiped away that requirement in 2013, when it ruled that the formula that forced places with a history of voter suppression under that federal supervision was outdated.
With no federal backstop, the debate over vote centers has highlighted both the extent to which polling site distribution is dependent on the makeup of county leadership and the limitations of any vows to allow for few closures in the future.
“It will be very hard to get me to vote after 2020 to close people’s voting centers,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said at a recent commissioner’s court meeting. But he acknowledged the promise to not close centers was only good until then. “We can’t bind the court for forever,” he said.