Eliminating countywide voting in Texas would make the process harder on voters, cost more money, election leaders say

A voter walks past an election sign on his way to vote at the Lauro Cavazos Middle School polling station. Lubbock County was the first to establish countywide vote centers. A legislative proposal would eliminate vote centers in Texas, requiring voters to cast ballots at only their assigned location. Credit: Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune

Nearly two decades ago, Roxzine Stinson helped usher a new voting model into Lubbock County. Now, she and other election administrators across Texas are bracing for its possible demise.

Last month, the state Senate passed a bill that would eliminate vote centers — polling locations scattered throughout the county that any registered voter can vote at — on Election Day and require residents to vote at an assigned precinct, typically in their neighborhood. Senate Bill 990, authored by Republican Sen. Bob Hall of Edgewood passed along party lines in the Senate and has been referred to the House Elections Committee.

“I really hate taking a step back after we’ve moved forward the way we have,” Stinson said.

It is not clear if the bill will gain sufficient support to pass through the lower chamber. A hearing has not been scheduled, and just over two weeks remain in the regular legislative session. The bill’s movement has nonetheless left voting rights advocates and local government officials concerned. They say vote centers are widely popular, and prohibiting them would saddle election offices with logistical and financial burdens.

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“It is stunning to me that this bill has moved forward,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas. “Countywide voting is the solution to so many problems.”

Hall’s legislation is just one of dozens of proposals to change the way the state votes that Texas lawmakers are considering this year. During the last legislative session, voting restrictions and changes to election security were condensed into a single omnibus election bill. This year, there have been hundreds of election-related bills filed, and even elections administrators say they are struggling to keep up with them. Texas Voting Rights Lab is currently tracking 221 election-related bills in the state.

Other changes that are still up for debate in the last weeks of the legislative session include reinstating a felony penalty for illegal voting and the creation of election marshalls.

Lubbock County, which is home to about 314,000 people on the state’s South Plains and includes the city of Lubbock, was the first county in Texas to try vote centers in 2006. County officials had traveled to Colorado, where vote centers originated, to learn about the program. A Lubbock lawmaker championed a bipartisan bill requiring the secretary of state’s office to establish a pilot program to test the concept. Election experts said vote centers could lower the costs of running an election and increase voter turnout.

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“What it basically does is it prevents a voter from going to the wrong location on election day because there is no wrong location,” Stinson said. “You can go to any vote center and vote.”

The program has since expanded to 90 counties, both rural and urban, which represent about 83% of Texas’ voting population, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project. The secretary of state’s office concluded in its most recent report to the Legislature that the program has proven successful in ensuring voters have an increased opportunity to cast a ballot.

During floor debate last month, Hall framed the bill as necessary to ensure accurate vote counts and to prevent people from voting twice — however, he offered no evidence that countywide polling leads to inaccurate counts.

When pressed by Democrats, Hall pointed to Harris County, where there were paper ballot shortages, malfunctioning voting machines and long lines at some polling places. Those problems have not been tied to countywide polling.

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“We think there’s just a fundamental misunderstanding of how successful the program has been,” said Chris Davis, elections administrator for Williamson County and a legislative chair of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators. “Vote centers just work.”

Neither Hall nor state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, who introduced a similar bill in the House, responded to The Texas Tribune’s requests for comment.

Lawmakers have projected that the bill would not have significant fiscal implications. Elections administrators, many of whom are working on budgets for next year, disagree.

Davis said the switch could cost Williamson County several millions of dollars due to the number of additional ballot-marking devices and precinct tabulators they’d need to purchase and the hundreds of poll workers they’d have to add to the election workforce. Williamson County ran 65 Election Day vote centers during last year’s general election. Davis said they’d likely have to double that number with a precinct-based system.

In Lubbock County, Stinson usually runs about 37 Election Day vote centers across 99 precincts. She said a switch to precinct-based voting would cost the county at least $300,000 to staff the new polling locations.

Finding those workers would be another challenge. Nationwide labor shortages following the COVID-19 pandemic have disproportionately impacted local governments, according to a report by the National League of Cities.

Stinson said that every week, she talks with a geographical information system expert about where those polling places could be, and she’s begun thinking about a committee she would convene to weigh in on the matter.

“It won’t just affect me, it affects the whole county,” Stinson said. “I’ll involve the disability community and neighborhood groups because they are going to need to have some say.”

More costly, she said, would be educating voters on the change.

Matthew Frankel, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, said he takes advantage of the countywide polling place program and didn’t realize there was a bill to eliminate it.

“I think I’m generally informed about current events and I had no idea this was happening,” Frankel said. “Voters are used to voting in a certain way. If this passes, I can see people going to the wrong place. I can see it being confusing.”

Advocates worry that eliminating countywide voting could cause confusion among voters who may not be tracking all of these bills.

“If we end countywide voting, we are just ramping up more and more confusion for Texans,” Gutierrez said. He pointed to a study by the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs, which found that confusion over voter ID laws kept some people from voting in Harris County.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.