If you’ve ever tried to hook up a “smart” TV, you know switching to new technology comes with some glitches, no matter how much you prepare or follow the instructions.
So it was Tuesday with Tarrant County’s first election with $11 million worth of new voting machines. And it was further complicated by the change from precinct-based voting to “vote centers,” a system in which any voter can cast a ballot at any polling place.
Bugs were inevitable, but as so often happens, more problems were with the people operating the equipment than the machines themselves. For instance, a few polling places didn’t open on time because workers were reluctant to power up machines, even though they were trained and instructed to, County Judge Glen Whitley said.
Other problems included delays in connecting computers used to check registrations and slow-downs in the final processing of ballots.
In this low-turnout election, it was manageable. Next year, it could be a disaster.
County officials have a big job ahead of them, and they know it. The number of ballots cast in March’s party primaries could be three times what we saw for this week’s state and local ballot. A competitive Democratic presidential primary could bring a boom of new voters. And the November general election could shatter turnout records. This year’s minor inconveniences could easily become next year’s full-blown electoral disaster.
Whitley said Wednesday that county officials will study this week’s election carefully for possible improvements for 2020. First, he said, is training. There’s no reason for election workers to be hesitant about setting up machines.
The county will be prepared to shift machines as necessary, too, based on spots that prove more popular. Whitley promised a study of voting patterns, figuring that the ability to vote close to work rather than being tied to a precinct caused some sites to be unexpectedly busy. And he indicated the county would probably buy more machines in anticipation of the February and March crush.
He was hesitant, though, to consider opening more polling places overall. We hope the county remains flexible on that point, if only to ensure that our entire community has access in what could be a hallmark for voter interest.
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Another useful tool would be an interactive map that shows voters where they can go to cast a ballot. This year, the county offered up a static map that was unhelpful on a mobile device. A Google-based map that lets users see locations around them, wherever they are, would be a major upgrade.
Voters have a learning curve, too. Next year’s primary and general election ballots will be much longer than what voters saw this year, with federal, state and county offices. Voters will have to go through page after page of judicial races alone, if they make it that far. Voting early will be the smart bet, and voters should try their best to know how they’re going to vote before they step up to a machine.
Election workers were equipped with information about the nearest polling places to send voters if there were problems, but some voters were unwilling to leave a place where they were sure they could vote, Whitley said. Their comfort level should grow as the idea of vote centers settles in.
Finally, the Republican and Democratic parties can take steps to smooth the process, too. They should be partners in the voter-education process, spreading the word about vote centers and the need for voters to be prepared when they arrive.
They can also streamline the county’s job by agreeing to as many joint-primary vote centers as possible. A voter should be able to go to any site and vote in either party’s primary.
Hard as it may be to believe, the first primary ballots will be cast in just over three months. That’s not much time to get ready. Tarrant County leaders, political parties and voters all need to start preparing soon.