I. In Focus This Week
One county at a time, vote centers coming to Texas
Continuing pilot program gains counties each election
By M. Mindy Moretti
Some revolutions start with a shot and others take time to build.
In Texas, a slow-building revolution is moving one county at a time to switch the largest state in the lower 48 to a vote center system instead of the traditional precinct-based polling places.
Since beginning a pilot program of vote centers nearly a decade ago just over 10 percent of the state’s 200+ counties used vote centers in the most recent statewide election and more are petitioning to make the move.
While not willing to call the pilot an outright success because of the still small sample of counties using the system, the secretary of state’s report to the 84th Legislature on the program said anecdotally, vote centers do make easier for voters and elections officials alike.
“However, anecdotal evidence from the participating counties, including feedback from voters and election officials, along with the turnout percentages, suggest countywide election polling places offer a way to ensure that voters who plan to vote in the election have an increased opportunity to do so much as with early voting,” the report said.
Tom Green County became a vote center county last year and by all reports things not only went well, but voters were pleased with the new system.
“In November, according to the surveys that were completed and letters provided, the reaction was overwhelming in favor of the vote center environment,” said Vona Hudson, election administrator for the county. “There were some that were not happy that they could not use paper ballots, which by law we cannot have in vote centers. We also experienced some lines at some of the locations that made people unhappy but they were still in favor of the concept. We added a location in May and that proved to be well received. When I see voters in public, I often have feedback from them that they like vote centers.”
Hudson said that the county hasn’t seen a cost savings quite yet from the vote centers because of the need to purchase new equipment, but she is hopeful that in the long run there will be a savings.
She also noted that, at least for now, there hasn’t been a decreased need for poll workers because the new process has meant the need to have more help for voters in the polling places, but that too could change over time.
According to Hudson, the success of vote centers in Tom Green County is a team effort. From volunteers, to staff to voters to commissioner’s court, it’s taken everyone to make the centers not only successful, but also liked.
“Without everyone working together we would not have been able to get this far in the process and I hope that because of all their hard work, vote centers will one day be a permanent option in our county,” Hudson said.
While Tom Green County is already in the program, Potter County is currently completing the application process to become one of the pilot counties. While a 2013 Vote Center Committee didn’t back the idea, at the urging of new Election Administrator Melynn Huntley, the county is now ready to move forward.
“As I learned how precinct-based voting worked, I saw nothing by advantages for our county in becoming a Vote Center County [VCC],” Huntley said. “Call it naivety or perpetual optimism, but vote centers made sense to me. So earlier this year, I asked the [vote center committee] to look at the idea again.”
Huntley called on officials from other counties using vote centers to help with a presentation to county officials and she said that really helped change the minds of many of the decision-makers.
Alicia Phillips Pierce, communications director for the secretary of state’s office said this support from participating counties to each other and to those applying, has been key for successful rollouts..
“Working together, the counties have been able to learn from each other to make the use of countywide polling places go smoothly,” Pierce said.
Huntley is optimistic about the county’s application to be a vote center county. The county has created a vote center advisory group, held precinct meetings to get neighborhood input, used traffic studies and met with political subdivisions, political groups, minority interest groups and disability groups.
“If we are not chosen this time around, we will continue to submit,” Huntley said. “Our leadership knows that cote centers are right for Potter County voters. If we have to be patient, we will be. If we missed something in the proposal, we will work to correct it and ensure that the plan we roll out is the best it can be.”
Of course, as with any change in a lifelong process there have been bumps. Galveston County and Collin County both suffered a host of problems the first time they rolled out vote centers. But both counties remain in the pilot program and have been able to fix their initial problems.
Naysayers have cited those examples as well as concerns about the shift in politics or voter disenfranchisement as reasons for not making the shift. Huntley said she was able to allay those fears in Potter.
“By looking at the track record of counties that have been using vote centers in Texas, fears were allayed and the naysayers became supporters,” Huntley said. “In counties that have vote centers, voter turnout has remained consistent or improved slightly. And there have been no remarkable political shifts that can be tied to vote center polling.”
Still, Huntley said that a strong communications plan has been key, not only in changing the minds of the decision-makers, but also in shifting public opinion.
“We invited our local radio, television and newspaper friends to attend all meetings. They have helped educated the public and are a vital reason that we have momentum in our county for the change,” Huntley said. “If another county is looking at Vote Centers, bring the media along on the journey.”
This year, the Legislature failed to move on bills to expand the pilot program to more counties, but elections officials remain hopeful.
“I can’t speak for all the voters of Texas but from the input I receive from voters in our county, they would very much like to see continued use of this type of voting,” Hudson said.
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