Some Texas counties struggle to meet new law's demand for more polling places

Votebeat's Texas Bureau looks into a law, passed unanimously by Republicans, that requires counties that offer countywide voting to increase the number of locations — a nearly impossible challenge in some areas.

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Texas residents waiting in line to vote in Nov 2022

Shelby Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

Some Texas election officials are running out of time before the March 5 primary to find sufficient polling locations, equipment, and election workers mandated by a new Republican-backed election law, and may not be able to meet its requirements.

The new law requires certain counties currently using vote centers for countywide voting to drastically increase the number of polling locations. Election officials say the new mandate is costly, and presents a series of new challenges for the counties that must comply.

In some counties, election officials are concerned about whether they'll have enough money to purchase more equipment and pay rental fees for additional locations. In others, it's unclear whether they'll find enough election workers to staff more voting sites.

The local Republican party in the state's most populous county wants Texas legislators to change the law, saying the unintended consequences of it are reshaping the way it holds its primary this year.

Teneshia Hudspeth, the Harris County Clerk in charge of local elections, told county commissioners in January that the county must now add more than 100 polling places compared to the number in the 2022 and 2020 primaries — for a total of 512.

In Harris County primaries, Republican and Democratic voters typically use separate machines. Because of that, Hudspeth said she would need to double up on machines at each new site, and that's not logistically possible, she said. There just isn't enough equipment or time to buy more.

"We can't put every single piece of equipment out on the field because we have to have backup equipment to address a challenge [when another location] needs updated equipment or a scanner is not working," Hudspeth told Votebeat's Texas Bureau.

The best available solution, Hudspeth said, was for the county's Democratic and Republican parties to agree for the first time to share voting equipment in a jointly run primary. Democrats quickly agreed. Republicans were reluctant, but eventually signed on.

Cindy Siegel, Harris County's GOP chair, told Votebeat the party would prefer to keep its primary separate because it wants complete oversight and control. She said the new mandate prevents Republicans from conducting the primary election as they see fit, the party's prerogative under state law.

In Texas, the political parties can choose to contract with the county election office to conduct a joint primary — sharing polling locations, voting equipment, and election workers — or have separate primaries. For years in Harris, Democrats and Republicans held separate primaries, sharing only polling locations. That meant voters could head to any polling location to cast their ballot, but once there, Republicans would use one side of the room to vote and Democrats in the other, processed by separate teams of election workers and using separate voting machines. The parties can't do that this year.

"Because of this, we're forced to do a joint primary," Siegel said. She plans to ask lawmakers to change the statute next year.

"We need to be able to have the choice," she said. "That's why legislators have to be really careful and look for those unintended consequences. But these things happen, and now this is what we're stuck dealing with."

The new law, Senate Bill 924, took effect in September and prevents counties that use the countywide voting program from combining small voting precincts into larger ones. In other words, election officials in those counties — about 90 across the state, where voters can cast a ballot anywhere in their county on Election Day — were able to centralize voting across lots of precincts that due to redistricting have fewer than 500 voters. Some of those smaller precincts have only 10 voters and there are some with just one voter each. The flexibility of combining them saved counties money by using a single polling site to serve several voters in a high-traffic area or where it's more convenient for them to cast a ballot.

Whether these counties will have to drastically increase their numbers of polling locations in November will depend on how many they already operate in general elections. Some already offer a large number of locations and would not need to add more to comply.

The bill wasn't designed to have this effect.

Senate Bill 924, as originally written by a North Texas Republican, state Sen. Drew Springer, gave smaller counties that don't use countywide voting 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.

But a last-minute amendment on the House floor in May introduced by state Rep. John Bucy, an Austin Democrat, changed how counties using the countywide voting program must calculate the number of voting sites they offer, forcing the minimum number of sites higher. The amended bill passed solely on Republican votes, with Bucy voting against it and without a public hearing.

Bucy told Votebeat in August that the purpose of his amendment was to protect voting access and prevent the loss of more voting locations.

Springer acknowledged the problems the new law had created. To fix the unintended problems, in the middle of last year's third called special session, Springer filed more legislation, Senate Bill 76. The bill, which specifically strikes the amendment introduced by Bucy, did not get a hearing and died without a vote.

Some election officials fear voters could be negatively affected

The new law does not provide any additional money for counties to offset all the new expenses, including paying more election workers, buying additional voting equipment, or establishing added locations. Two dozen other counties, including Bexar, Tarrant, Hays, Cameron, Williamson, Lubbock, Ellis, Midland, and San Patricio, have also been trying to find additional polling locations, workers, and enough voting equipment.

In rural areas of the state, where buildings and adequate facilities are scarce, some election officials are still struggling to find usable additional polling sites.

Trudy Hancock, the Brazos County elections administrator, told Votebeat that out of the nearly 30 additional polling places needed for the primary election, she's secured only four locations. Before the new law, the county operated 25 polling locations for primary elections. Under the new mandate, that number has doubled.

Hancock said that for the primary, she and the chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties have reached out to as many churches, community centers, and homeowners associations as possible, asking to use their facilities. But it has not been easy to find organizations that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and are willing to host voting while also offering enough secure space for multiple rows of voting equipment, along with plenty of parking, she said. Although Brazos is home to more than 200,000 people and Texas A&M University, a large part of the county outside of Bryan and College Station is mostly farmland.

Even if Hancock and the political parties were able to find enough locations in time, Hancock is also concerned she won't be able to find the more than 100 additional election workers needed to operate the locations, plus more than $100,000 for more voting equipment.

Overall, she warns, voters could be negatively affected. "We'd have to be pulling resources from our larger locations in order to staff the new ones," Hancock said, "And so you're looking at more problems and longer lines at those large locations, because they won't be staffed adequately."

Meanwhile, counties that fail to provide the additional locations or fail to comply with the new rules could risk legal challenges from candidates. It's unclear whether counties would face repercussions from the state if they can't meet the exact number of required polling places, given that officials are fully aware of the difficulties the law has created.

Officials with the Texas Secretary of State's office have heard these concerns since at least last August.

In January of this year, during a gathering of more than 100 election administrators in Amarillo, Christina Adkins, the state's elections division director, told election officials to keep records of every step they took to comply.

"Documentation is important so that if there's a challenge to your election, you'll be able to tell the story of how you got here," Adkins said. "Show that you have made a good-faith effort to comply with the law."

This story was produced by Votebeat and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.

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