Senate moves to end countywide voting on Election Day

People walk up to the Willie DeLeon Civic Center Precinct 1 polling station in Uvalde on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022. The Texas Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would prohibit counties from offering voting centers on Election Day. All voters would have to cast their ballot at their assigned neighborhood precinct. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

Countywide polling locations on Election Day would be banned in Texas under a bill approved by the Texas Senate on Thursday.

Senate Bill 990, authored by Republican Sen. Bob Hall of Edgewood, passed 17-12 along party lines. The bill — if approved by the state House — would eliminate countywide voting centers on Election Day and require residents to vote at an assigned precinct, typically in their neighborhood. Larger voting centers would be permitted through early voting.

Currently 90 counties, including Tarrant and Parker, are approved by the secretary of state’s office to use countywide voting centers on Election Day.

Hall has framed the bill as necessary to address potential issues with vote counts, but Democrats who opposed the bill pressed him for any evidence that countywide polling had led to people voting at more than one location. Hall said on Thursday that spreading voting locations across a precinct makes it “impossible” to ensure an accurate count and that limiting voters to a central polling location would simplify the tally. There has been no evidence of systematic voter fraud in Texas. And each county that has been approved to use countywide voting policies must pass audits by the secretary of state’s office during two election cycles to keep the practice in place.

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Officials with the secretary of state’s election division have said the program — which began in rural counties — is popular among voters because it allows them to vote anywhere in the county. That is especially helpful in some of the state’s largest and most sprawling counties like Harris and Bexar, where Texans have long commutes from work to home and could possibly miss their window to vote if they don’t make it to their neighborhood precinct on time after work. Election officials also like the convenience the program provides to voters because they don’t have to scramble to figure out where to vote on Election Day.

The bill is part of a yearslong effort by Republican lawmakers in the state to tighten voting laws. For years, GOP leaders have said that there needs to be stricter interpretation of the state’s voting laws to ensure the security of the vote. That motivation increased after 2020 when former President Donald Trump claimed without substantiation that current election laws had led to his electoral loss.

On the Senate floor on Thursday, Democratic lawmakers repeatedly asked Hall for concrete evidence of inaccurate vote counts. He first said there is no tangible evidence. “The data is so carefully guarded and kept from the public it is almost impossible to get the information,” Hall said.

During a heated exchange with Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, Hall pointed to Harris County and Smith County. Election Day issues in Harris County prompted an audit from the secretary of state’s office that found some “voter irregularities” but no evidence of widespread fraud.

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“You have no evidence to prove anything that you’re saying,” Gutierrez said to Hall. “There is not one article in any publication in the state of Texas that proves what you’re saying. There is not a law enforcement officer that can prove what you’re saying?”

“Correct,” Hall responded. “I’m saying we don’t know, there’s nothing to be proven.”

The debate over the bill was acrimonious, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick reprimanding Gutierrez for what he deemed as a personal attack on Hall during the debate. Patrick took the unusual move of ending Gutierrez’s time to speak on the bill.

But the pointed criticism came from many sources.

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“With all due respect, I just really think you’re misinformed,” said Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, who is the longest-serving member of the chamber.

Opponents of the bill also argued that it would strip Texans of a convenient way of voting. Seventy percent of the state’s voters cast their ballots at a countywide polling location in the November 2022 election cycle, said Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin.

Eckhardt said the bill would also put an added burden on already heavily taxed elections administrators, who have had difficulty in recent years finding election workers and polling sites.

But Hall responded that the bill “is about security, not convenience.”

The bill now moves to the House, where an identical bill introduced by Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, has not moved in the Elections Committee.

Natalia Contreras contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.