Texas Politics

Tarrant County is moving forward with countywide voting. Here’s what it means for you.

On Election Day this November, Tarrant County residents may have the option of casting their vote at any polling location countywide, rather than being limited to a preassigned location.

The Tarrant County Commissioners Court voted 4-1 last week to move forward with the implementation of “vote centers,” joining over 55 Texas counties that have adopted the system. Similar to early voting, voters will have the option of casting their ballot at any vote center across the county under the new system, rather than being assigned a polling location based on their precinct.

Supporters of the program say it will make voting more accessible, lead to increased participation and ultimately cut costs by eliminating redundant polling locations. Experts and advocates warn that a thorough review of data and voting behaviors must be consulted to ensure that certain voters aren’t disenfranchised in the process. In addition, targeted outreach will be key amid an election that will see changes such as new voting equipment and the elimination of straight-ticket voting.

“We want to try to give everyone the best opportunity to vote,” said Troy Havard, assistant elections administrator in the Tarrant County Elections Department. “Historically, we have a very low turnout on non-presidential election years. And our goal is to try to get those off years to be closer to the presidential election year turnout results.”

Texas’ Secretary of State may select as many as six counties with a population of 100,000 or more to implement countywide polling places for an election. Tarrant County, which falls into that category, has until Aug. 22 to submit its plan to the state for approval.

As part of the resolution adopted by the Commissioners Court, polling locations would also not be eliminated until after the 2020 presidential election, to allow data on voting behavior to inform any potential cuts. The Secretary of State’s office requires that at least 65% of a county’s polling places are kept intact the first year of participating in the program, and no less than 50% of locations after that.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Roy Charles Brooks, who voted in favor of the resolution, stressed last week that when choosing the locations of vote centers, “the devil is in the details.”

Increased participation

Approved by the state legislature in 2005, vote centers were first used by Lubbock County in 2006. Now, more than 20% of Texas’ counties participate in the program, with Dallas, Harris and now Tarrant seeking to join.

“They’ve become wildly popular,” said Robert Stein, a political science professor at Rice University, who has studied the implementation of vote centers and consulted counties in developing them. Voters, “love them, you can’t get rid of them once you started.”

And they also increase voter turnout, anywhere from 2% to 8%, Stein said.

Low voter turnout has been a persistent issue at both a state and local level. In 2018, Texas had the 11th lowest turnout nationwide for the November general election, according to the United States Elections Project. And in this May’s general and special elections, only 92,192 of 1,104,353 registered voters in Tarrant County, or about 8.35%, participated, according to the official election results.

Vote centers will work toward ensuring that everyone’s vote counts, regardless of where it’s cast, said Hani Mirza, a senior staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project.

“A lot of election judges, without telling you where to go, will sometimes just give you a provisional ballot that you fill out, and it won’t be counted because you haven’t voted in the correct location,” Mirza said of the current precinct voting system. “Countywide polling will solve that issue completely.”

Under the countywide polling place system, voters could choose where they prefer to cast their ballot based on convenience, such as a location being on the way to work or because it has low wait times.

In Williamson County, poll workers are trained to constantly update wait times at their locations, which residents can access online, said Christopher Davis, elections administrator for the county and president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.

“It’s not a science or not Disney World at (the) Magic Mountain line, where you can measure the time it takes to get to a place. But it’s an estimate. And I think it’s really, really useful information when voters want to commit,” Davis said.

Issues to watch for

But to reap the benefits of the system, outreach and data have to be utilized so confusion doesn’t ensue and votes aren’t suppressed, experts said.

Changes will already be coming that voters will need to be educated on, including new equipment and the elimination of straight-ticket voting. Precinct 3 Commissioner Gary Fickes, who was the lone vote against the resolution, said he worried the changes already in place combined with starting a new system, could create “chaos on election day.”

“My concern is that we’re trying to stuff about 10 pounds of things into a five-pound bucket,” Fickes said at last week’s meeting.

It was the same worry state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, had, and the basis for her bill that would have prevented counties with populations of more than 400,000 from using vote centers.

“It’s a very good concern,” Stein said, which is why he advises counties to err on the side of caution.

A public information campaign is essential for voters to understand the changes that have been made. Havard, the assistant elections administrator in Tarrant County, said demonstrations of the new equipment will be made as part of an outreach plan.

Slowly implementing changes to polling locations was one of the recommendations from the Citizens Advisory Committee, a group tasked with soliciting public feedback and creating a methodology to guide the Commissioners Court.

Havard said the county has about 345 polling locations for Election Day. Under the countywide polling system, the Commissioners Court has the authority to cut locations, such as if one was located across the street from another because of precinct requirements.

“We have a few of those, just because a precinct line runs down the road. In one, you have maybe 20 voters and the other one you have 2,000,” Havard said as an example. “I think we would be poor stewards of the taxpayers’ money if we did not consider closing that one that had 20 voters in it.”

Under the resolution the court adopted, locations would not be eliminated until 2021, in order to provide the county with data to base its decisions off of. The Citizens Advisory Committee recommended a reduction of 45 locations, or about 13%, based on a set of criteria, that included factors such as a location’s ADA accessibility, whether it is within two miles of another location, the precinct’s minority population and more.

For example, if a polling location had more than 500 votes cast on Election Day, it would be placed on the “keep list,” while a location where less than 100 votes were cast would be considered for elimination, according to the committee’s methodology.

But Mirza, from the Texas Civil Rights Project, said areas where there’s low voter turnout should be boosted with more polling locations, rather than less, to help combat issues such as a lack of transportation.

“Whenever they’re thinking about placing a polling location, they need to think about equity,” Mirza said. “They should be thinking about adding locations to fill in all these different types of gaps around the county.”

Stein, the political science professor at Rice University, said ultimately, the county should determine where its vote centers are located by studying the behavior of every single voter in each election, and testing different outreach methods to find what works best. It’s something Stein is experimenting with in Harris County, by conducting studies during the county’s elections.

“Every election is different. Not only in terms of turnout, but the composition of the voters,” Stein said. “It means looking not at what people have done in the past, but what they might do in the future.”

But before an overhaul of the county’s election system can even begin, the county has to finish the process of purchasing at least 3,000 new voting machines that have the capability to tabulate votes electronically and generate a paper trail.

In the end, making the process easier to increase voter turnout, is the county’s goal, Havard said.

Off-year elections, “are probably more important to them on the local level than the presidential election is,” Havard said. The president, “makes decisions at the 30,000-foot level. Whereas these locally elected officials — commissioners, school board members, city council members — these people are making decisions on a daily basis that affect your life directly. If more people realized that I think we would have a bigger voter turnout every election.”

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Tessa Weinberg is a state government for the Star-Telegram. Based in Austin, she covers all things policy and politics with a focus on Tarrant County. She previously covered the Missouri legislature where her reporting prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. A California native and graduate of the University of Missouri, she’s made her way across the U.S. and landed in Texas in May 2019.