Connect with us

News + Opinion

Many Texans’ Votes are Lost When They go to the Wrong Polling Place – Counties see Countywide Vote Centers as an Answer

The 2020 election could mark the first time the state’s five largest counties allow residents to vote at any polling place instead of limiting them to precinct-based sites on Election Day.

Published

on

Harris County is among the municipalities working fast to implement vote centers so Texans aren't turned away if they show up at the wrong polling place. Photo credit: Michael Stravato for The 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,” said Dallas County elections administrator Toni Pippins-Poole 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,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins 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 says.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/07/25/texas-countywide-voting-rights-problems-solutions/.

Texas Tribune Mission Statement
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

News + Opinion

Dallas County Health and Human Services Saturday Clinic for Back-to-School Immunizations

School will be in session soon. Plan ahead to avoid last minute, long lines.

Published

on

Immunizations for children are required for students in school.

Dallas County Health and Human Services (DCHHS) is holding a back-to-school immunization clinic Saturday, August 10 from 9am to 12pm.

This once a year Saturday clinic will take place on the first floor of the main DCHHS building at 2377 N. Stemmons Freeway in Dallas.

Parents/guardians must bring their child’s most recent immunization records.

“It is so important to make sure your children are vaccinated on time to ensure their long term health”, said Dr. Philip Huang, DCHHS Director. “Vaccinations also help protect the health of classmates, friends, relatives and others in the community. Make sure to get you kids any needed vaccines before the back-to-school rush!”

Dallas County residents from birth to age 18 in the following categories are eligible to receive free immunizations on August 10 under the Texas Vaccines for Children Program (TVFC) who meet at least one of the following:

  • Medicaid eligible
  • Uninsured: a child who has no health insurance coverage
  • American Indian or Alaskan Native
  • Underinsured (as defined by the Texas Department of State Health Services)

Parents/guardians should review immunization records and consult with a primary care provider or a public health professional to determine needed vaccinations.

Texas minimum state vaccine requirements for students grades K-12 can be found here.

For more information on the DCHHS immunization clinic and upcoming community events, please visit the county website.

Continue Reading

News + Opinion

Alamo Drafthouse Implements Donation Campaign at all Texas Theaters to Support El Paso and Dayton Shooting Victims

The Texas-based theater brand is stepping up and reaching out to help others.

Published

on

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema has implemented a charitable campaign across all Texas theaters to support the victims of the El Paso and Dayton shootings.

Through August 26, guests at Alamo Drafthouse theaters across Texas can choose to make a $1, $3, or $5 contribution via a donation add-on feature every time they purchase tickets via the website or the Alamo Drafthouse app.

Every dollar raised, along with an Alamo Drafthouse match up to $20,000, will go towards the Paso Del Norte Community Foundation’s El Paso Victims Relief Fund and the Dayton Oregon District Tragedy Fund.

Click here for more details on donating and distribution of funds.

Continue Reading

News + Opinion

Gunman in El Paso Shooting Faces Death Penalty, Federal Domestic Terrorism Charges

Police say the gunman legally purchased the weapon he used in the shooting that left 20 people dead and more than two dozen wounded at an El Paso Walmart.

Published

on

Patrick Crusius, the alleged gunman in Saturday's mass shooting in El Paso. Photo credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation

EL PASO — The gunman charged in the deadly attack that took the lives of 20 people in this border city has been charged with state capital murder charges, and federal authorities are separately pursuing a domestic terrorism case, law enforcement officials said Sunday.

The alleged gunman, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius of Allen, north of Dallas, is in custody after police said he opened fire at a Walmart in East-Central El Paso. He was arrested without incident and is said to be cooperating with authorities.

“I know the death penalty is something very powerful, but in this occasion it’s something that’s necessary,” El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza told reporters Sunday morning.

El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen said the weapon used in the shooting was purchased legally, but he did not reveal where or when it was purchased.

Crusius allegedly published a manifesto where he indicated the crime was motivated by hatred toward immigrants. El Paso police and the FBI have said they are investigating the manifesto to determine whether Crusius was the author.

John Bash, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, said the crime meets the criteria for domestic terrorism under federal law.

“This meets [the definition], it appears to be designed to intimidate a civilian population,” he said. “And we’re going to do what we do to terrorists in this country, which is deliver swift and certain justice.”

FBI Special Agent in Charge Emmerson Buie said the agency has also obtained three search warrants to execute in the Dallas area. He added that the FBI “continues to look at a number of different potential crimes” and that the FBI hate crimes fusion cell — which includes field agents, analysts and members of the agency’s criminal investigations and counterterrorism divisions — has been activated.

Local authorities seeking the death penalty doesn’t mean the feds won’t do the same, however. After the 2015 mass shooting in a Charleston, S.C. church that left nine black churchgoers dead, 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof faced a death sentence on both state and federal charges. He was sentenced to die in federal court before the state prosecution moved forward; he ultimately pleaded guilty and received a life sentence on the state charges.

Federal executions have been rare: The federal government has put to death three people since the death penalty was reinstated, with the last one in 2003. U.S. Attorney General William Barr has scheduled five more for December and January.

It’s too early to know how those jurisdiction questions will play out in the El Paso shooting, but Texas has executed more people than any other state in the country by far — with more than 560 people put to death since capital punishment was reinstated nationally in 1976. Eleven men are scheduled to be executed before the end of the year.

Early Sunday morning, the Walmart where the shooting happened was still surrounded by police officers and yellow crime scene tape. Allen said authorities were working quickly to restore normalcy to the area.

“We’re beginning to remove the bodies from the scene,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/08/04/gunman-el-paso-shooting-faces-death-penalty-domestic-terrorism-charges/.

Texas Tribune mission statement
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Continue Reading
Advertisement image host
Advertisement imgbox
Advertisement imgbox

Dallas City Paper is a locally owned and operated digital news source, focused on local news, culture, and society.

Weekly newsletter coming soon.

Trending