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Harris County (Houston), TX’s newly-elected clerk is proposing to set in motion a process that will eventually result in Election Day vote centers across the county. The Houston Chronicle has more:
New Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman on Tuesday will propose to Commissioners Court a non-precinct based countywide polling system, where voters can cast ballots at the locations most convenient to them.
“Life gets in the way; you’ve got to pick up the kids, or go to another job,” Trautman said at her office Monday. “But if people actually had a choice of when and where to vote, I think you would see a big difference in turnout.”
Fifty-two Texas counties, including neighboring Fort Bend and Brazoria, have used voting centers.
In last November’s mid-term election, Harris County residents could vote at any of 46 county locations during the two-week early voting period. They had to cast ballots at their assigned precincts on Election Day, when the county operates more than 700 polling sites.
It is unclear how many voting centers would be needed, which could vary depending on what is on the ballot and projected turnout. Trautman said she would begin by using the county’s 46 early voting locations as Election Day voting centers, in addition to its precinct polling sites. Her office, she said, would use the resulting turnout data to make future decisions about the number of centers needed.
During her campaign, Trautman pitched voting centers as a way to increase turnout by 2 to 5 percent. She said voters are more likely to participate when they can cast ballots on Election Day near their work or school, which may be outside their precincts.
Former county clerk Stan Stanart, whom Trautman defeated last November, was open to moving to countywide polling places. He said in October that the option is available only because the county moved to electronic poll books on his watch. Without the modified iPads, which can communicate with each other so voters cannot cast ballots at multiple locations, each polling place would need a paper record of the county’s 2.3 million voters.
To her credit, the new clerk recognizes that a switch to vote centers takes time, and she is building that time into her proposal. She has also hired a new county elections director – Travis County (Austin)’s Michael Winn – with experience in managing the transition:
Trautman declined to set a deadline to complete the switch to voting centers, so as not to rush the process. She said she plans to start with lower-turnout elections, such as May school board balloting or November’s Houston city races, and evaluate the results. She said to debut the program during a presidential election, when more than 1 million voters regularly turn out, would be irresponsible.
The new clerk said she has studied Travis County’s voting centers model, which debuted in 2011, and hired away Michael Winn, that county’s elections director. Winn said voters needed several cycles to get used to the new system, which he said eventually boosted turnout 10 to 12 percent.
“Voters really enjoyed the fact that during lunchtime or after work, in that crunch time before polls close … vote centers make it so they can go without worry to a place within their proximity,” Winn said.
Through studying turnout patterns and consulting with neighborhood leaders, Winn said Travis County was able to close about 20 percent of its traditional polling places without hampering turnout.
The clerk also recognizes the importance of community input – especially in the wake of controversies in 2018 about outreach to certain minority-language communities:
Trautman said she is open to consolidating Harris County polling sites, but only after consulting with communities. She acknowledged the role polling places play in the civic fabric of neighborhoods — especially where residents once had been denied suffrage — and said she would leave open sites that hold such significance…
More than a dozen community members have signed up to speak about the issue at Commissioners Court on Tuesday.
Among them is AJ Durrani of the Empowering Communities Initiative, which represents nine local Asian-American groups. He urged the clerk’s office to ensure there are enough voting centers in minority communities. A miscommunication between a Korean-American group and poll workers during early voting this past November in Spring Branch led to scores of voters being denied translation services.
“There are churches all over the place for voting on election day, why not some of the ethnic community centers?” Durrani said.
Another resident who signed up to speak encouraged the county to recruit mosques as polling sites.
Kyle Longhofer, a former Democratic Party official and election judge in Fort Bend County, said the switch to voting centers there in 2016 cut down on the number of provisional ballots cast by voters who arrived at the wrong polling places. Provisional ballots are segregated from regular votes, and often are challenged and thrown out.
“You hate to see people waste their vote,” Longhofer said.
The transition to vote centers will occur against the backdrop of other important election changes:
Harris and other Texas counties in 2020 also must grapple with the consequences of the Legislature’s decision to eliminate straight-ticket voting, which increases the time needed to cast a ballot. Even though 76 percent of Harris County voters cast straight-ticket ballots in November, long lines dismayed voters during early voting and on Election Day.
Trautman said she expects the early voting centers to alleviate that problem. If a location is crowded, she reasoned, election workers can direct voters to a nearby polling place with a shorter wait.
The voting centers are Trautman’s first major proposal as county clerk since taking office Jan. 1. Rearranged furniture and half-hung portrait frames show her staff still has much moving in to do at its Caroline Street office, but Trautman said she was eager deliver on campaign pledges. She also plans eventually to replace the county’s aging voting machines.
This is a very significant story; Harris County is quietly one of the most heavily-populated counties in America (exceeded by only Los Angeles, CA and Cook County, IL) and any change in elections will have similarly large impact – and require an appropriately heavier lift. Clerk Trautman and Director Winn (congratulations, Michael!) have their work cut out for them … good luck – and stay tuned!