New law requires many Texas counties to add more polling places. In areas with few buildings and workers, that’s going to be hard.
Rules for countywide voting previously let officials locate a single voting site to serve multiple small precincts. Without that flexibility, some counties will need to double their number of sites — and machines and poll workers.
Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization reporting on voting access and election administration across the U.S.
A new Texas law requiring more Election Day polling sites in several counties next year has officials worried they won’t be able to find enough voting locations or workers to staff them.
The mandate, which was approved earlier this year by Republican lawmakers, applies only to the roughly 90 counties that use the countywide voting program. Counties voluntarily adopt the program, which allows voters to cast ballots at any polling place while also permitting counties to consolidate the number of voting locations offered, since voters can go to any of them.
But the new law changes that, in some cases drastically expanding the number of voting sites counties in the program must open while still permitting voters to cast a ballot at any location.
In Brazos County, for example, which uses the countywide polling program, the provision will require the county to double the number of polling locations it currently offers on Election Day. That means Elections Administrator Trudy Hancock and her staff must find 25 new sites — along with equipment, supplies, and staff needed by next year’s November general election, she said.
Brazos, which has more than 125,000 registered voters and is home to Texas A&M University, has been using the countywide voting program since 2014. It gave Hancock a way to centralize voting across lots of precincts that — due to redistricting quirks — have fewer than 500 voters, including some precincts with only 10 voters and even some with just a single voter each. She would typically locate a combined single polling site to serve several of them in a high-traffic area with an available building, one accessible for voters with disabilities.
Hancock is worried especially about finding adequate polling locations.
“Most of our population is highly concentrated. We’re a college town. Everything that’s rural around us is all farmland,” Hancock said. “So there are very few people in those precincts and it’s just not feasible to have locations in those places. Most of them don’t even have buildings in the whole precinct because it’s all farmland.”
And all locations must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act while also offering enough secure space for multiple rows of voting equipment, along with plenty of parking to accommodate the anticipated number of voters.
Combining polling sites made it easier to find enough good locations, while also saving the county money because it allowed election officials to staff and equip one polling location to serve voters from more than one precinct.
“But now [legislators] took that ability from us,” she said.
That wasn’t the original intent of Senate Bill 924, authored by state Sen. Drew Springer, a rural North Texas Republican. As originally written, Springer’s bill gives smaller counties that aren’t in the countywide voting program the option to combine precincts. Lawmakers didn’t change that part. Those counties can now group precincts together, as long as such combinations don’t grow to more than 10,000 registered voters — double what was previously allowed.
In the bill’s House Election Committee report, Springer gave an example in Denton County — which does not use countywide voting — where a precinct comprising a pair of retirement communities had grown so large, it forced a split into two different precincts. One of those precincts, however, did not have an adequate facility for a polling location. Springer said those residents “would be better served if two voting precincts could be combined” so that one centralized facility could be used as a polling location.
Then, state Rep. John Bucy, an Austin Democrat, introduced a last-minute amendment on the House floor in May that changes the way counties using the countywide voting program must calculate the number of voting sites they offer, forcing the minimum number of sites higher.
Bucy told Votebeat the purpose of his amendment was to protect voting access and prevent the loss of more voting locations.
“In a state that’s already the hardest to vote, I didn’t want to see access to the ballot box shrink even more,” he said and acknowledged that some counties have a hard time finding adequate polling locations and the workers to run them. But he did not remember receiving any pushback on his amendment during the legislative session, he said.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Bucy said. “And we’ll continue to be open to adjusting [legislation] as we always need to be and as we see unintended consequences of legislation.”
The Legislature passed the bill solely on Republican votes in both chambers, with Bucy voting against the bill in the end. The law does not provide any type of additional funding for counties to pay additional election workers or to pay for expenses associated with finding new locations. If counties do not provide the additional locations or otherwise fail to comply with the new rules, they could be sued by candidates or advocacy groups.
Lawmakers passed the countywide polling program option in 2005. Lubbock County, which has more than 186,000 registered voters, was the first county to use it in 2006. Roxzine Stinson, Lubbock County’s elections administrator, said she may not have a hard time finding enough locations, but worries she won’t be able to recruit sufficient workers to staff them, which could ultimately cause longer wait times for voters.
Stinson said the new law means she’ll need to staff about a dozen additional polling locations, for a total of 49.
“That means we need 49 judges, 49 alternate judges, and then we need clerks for all of those as well. You’re talking quite a bit of people you’re going to need to work,” Stinson said.
Stinson said she and her staff are working to recruit workers by placing flyers at the local county fair and nearby schools, reaching out to temporary job recruiting agencies, making announcements in local radio and TV stations, and by working with local political party chairs to spread the word.
“We’re doing the best that we can with what we have,” she said. “And we will make every effort to make sure we comply and we will go above and beyond to make sure these locations are accessible for the voters.”
The restrictions the new law has imposed on the countywide program are prompting some counties to hesitate, questioning whether adopting it would still be cost-effective and more efficient for voters.
Cameron County, in South Texas and home to Brownsville, has more than 227,000 registered voters. County officials there have been considering adopting the countywide polling place program for a few years now.
In November, the county had more than 70 polling locations. Adopting countywide voting would have previously allowed them to bring that number down to less than 50, at more centralized locations. But under the new law, that may no longer be the case, said Remi Garza, the county’s elections administrator. County officials there are looking closely at the new requirements from Senate Bill 924 before deciding.
“The ultimate benefit of the voter being able to go to any polling place will always stay in effect. But when you talk about the equipment that’s necessary, when you think of the actual number of locations that you will be required to have open — what we believe we’re going to be able to do now, we may ultimately not be able to do,” Garza said.
Natalia Contreras covers election administration and voting access for Votebeat in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Contact Natalia at firstname.lastname@example.org