Thursday, July 30, 2009

Vote Centers Coming To Collin Co. For Election Day This November?

Updated Saturday Aug. 1, 2009 4:55AM
Over the last few years several states have already or are seriously considering implementing consolidated Vote Centers on Election Day - and now, after taking a pass on it in 2006, the idea has again come to Collin Co. In mid-July Collin Co. notified the Texas Secretary of State that the county wants to be selected to join Texas' ongoing Vote Center trial program. (also see previous post 'Consolidated Polling Centers Coming To Collin Co. Next Election Day?')

Late in the 2009 legislative session the Texas legislature passed HB719, which amends Section 43.007 of the Texas Election Code to require the Texas Secretary of State (SOS) to implement a program that allows Commissioner's Courts in selected counties to eliminate election precinct polling places and establish county-wide Vote Centers for certain elections.
These Election Day Vote Centers work almost exactly like Early Voting Vote Centers. During the early voting period for each election cycle, a number of polling places appear through out the county and any registered voter in the county can vote in any of those places throughout the early voting period.
The change from precinct voting places to Vote Centers won't happen immediately or throughout the state. First, the SOS is going to expand the Vote Center pilot program by selecting a few more counties to join the two counties already in the pilot program.
HB 719 states that the SOS can only select three counties with a population more than 100,000 people and two with populations less than 100,000. Additionally, those counties who want to be added to the trial program must also have converted to electronic voting and have electronic poll book systems networked via the Internet to qualify voters at the Vote Centers.
Lubbock will be one of the three larger population counties and Erath County will be one of smaller population counties in the program, as both counties have already participated in the initial pilot project testing the concept of consolidating polling locations into vote centers.
Once in the Vote Center program HB 719 allows counties to incremental decrease in the total number polling places by up to 35 percent of the polling places in the first year and up to 50 percent of the polling places in the second year of the plan.
Bottom line, by August 28th the SOS will select two additional larger counties and one smaller county to expand the experimental Vote Center trial program.

In mid-July the Collin County Elections Administrator applied to be one of those larger counties selected by the SOS to join the program. The Elections Administrator notified the SOS that Collin County intends to submit a plan, by the August 15th application deadline date, to implement countywide Election Day Vote Centers this coming November. (see SOS scheduled and plan requirements at end of this blog post)
Erath and Brewster counties in the smaller county category and Collin, Galveston, Grayson, Lubbock and Midland in the larger county category have applied to the SOS to join the program. All of the counties applying to join the program must submit their complete vote center plan to the SOS no later than August 15th to be considered during the selection process. A maximum of five counties total will be selected to participate in the expanded trial Vote Center program, no matter how many counties apply. (Galveston County is likely to be one of the larger counties selected by the SOS, because so many of their regular precinct polling locations were wiped out by Hurricane Ike. Galveston County would seem to have a very practical need to utilize Vote Centers in the coming election.)

The SOS will, by August 28th, select the two additional larger counties and one smaller county to join the Vote Center Program. The selected counties must then forward their Vote Center plans to the U.S. Dept. of Justice for pre-clearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 for their approval to proceed with the program expansion.
After the Collin County Commissioners Court held a brief public hearing on July 20, 2009 to take public comment on the Elections Administrator's Vote Center proposal, the Commissioners authorized the Administrator to proceed with the Vote Center planning process.
Due to the concern expressed by the public during the public hearing and a request that community input be allowed during the planning process from Shawn Stevens, the newly elected Chairperson of the Democratic Party of Collin County, the Commissioners instructed the County Elections Administrator to form a community planning committee.

The planning committee will participate in the planning process to properly locate, equip and staff Election Day Vote Centers for the November 3, 2009 election. The eight person Community Planning Committee formed by the Elections Administrator includes the following voting members:
  1. The GOP County Chair - Fred Moses
  2. The Democratic County Chair - Shawn Stevens
  3. The Libertarian Party Chair -
  4. Early Voting Ballot Board Judge - Neal Katz
  5. Central Count Station Alt. Judge - Bill Baumbach
  6. Advocacy, Inc. representative - Staff Attorney Dustin Rynders of Austin
  7. LULAC Representative - Rick Gonzalez
  8. NAACP Representative -
The first community planning committee meeting was held on Monday July 27, 2009. The next planning meeting is scheduled Monday, August 3, 2009, at 7:00 pm in the Commissioner’s Courtroom in the Jack Hatchell Administration Building in McKinney.
The following meeting will be on Thursday August 6, 2009 - time and place TBD.

Though the efforts of Shawn Stevens, the new chairperson of the Democratic Party of Collin County, Dr. Robert M. Stein of Rice University in Houston will attend the August 6th meeting to speak to the planning committee.
Under the provisions of a Voting Center program there are many fewer than usual Election Day polling places, but each Election Day Vote Center acts like the Early Voting Vote Center, now familiar to many Collin County voters, where any county resident can vote at any Vote Center polling place.

Two key arguments are made in support of Vote Centers:
Pros and Cons


PRO: Voters have more
choices about where
to vote.
CON: If the sites are not
distributed evenly,
problems may arise
for voters who cannot
travel longer distances
due to lack of access
to transportation.


PRO: Staffing and equipment
needs are reduced if
counties use a smaller
number of voting
CON: Long lines could be a
problem if too few poll
workers are scheduled
or too many voters
arrive at one vote
center simultaneously.

Planning & Administration

PRO: Fewer people showing
up at the wrong polling
places means fewer
headaches & fewer
provisional ballots for
voters and elections
officials alike.
CON: Vote Centers can make
it harder to plan for
Vote Center
traffic. Too few voting
booths or electronic
check-in computers or
technical problems
with either can cause
long delays for voters.
  1. First, historically, voters are assigned to vote at precinct polling places according to their residence address on Election Day. This is often inconvenient for voters, especially those who work some distance way from where they live, to return to their home precinct on Election Day. Holding elections at countywide polling locations would not only ease the burden on voters.

    It is argued that Vote Centers will increase turnout by freeing voters to cast their ballots at a number of locations convenient to where they work and shop instead of limiting them to one precinct polling place in their neighborhoods.

  2. Second, there are assertions that Vote Centers will reduce the governmental costs of administering elections because fewer poll workers will be required to staff Vote Centers than the more numerous neighborhood-polling places.
Vote Centers were first tested in Larimer County, Colorado in 2003 when 143 precinct polling places were converted into just 22 Vote Centers. The center locations, mostly in urban settings, were chosen for their convenience to work and shopping, the availability of large parking facilities, and accessibility for the disabled.

To "qualify" voters entering the Vote Center election clerks used an electronic poll book application running on laptop computers which were linked, via the Internet, to a central election office computer poll book database of all registered county voters.

As Vote Center election clerks verified each voter as "qualified to vote," the electronic poll book software updated that person's central poll book database record to show that person had voted in the election. This electronic poll book voter qualification and check-in process prevents voters from casting ballots at multiple Vote Center locations.

The electronic poll book software also specified what "ballot style" to give to each voter. Since Larimer County voters could go to any of the county's 22 Vote Center locations each voter had to receive a ballot that included the correct list of candidates for their particular residential location.
For example, in the November 2008 election Collin County, Texas had over fifty unique ballot styles to cover the various combination of U.S. Congressional Districts, State House and Senate Districts, Judicial Districts, County Commissioner Districts, and so forth for each resident of the county.
Because Larimer County officials properly planned their Election Day Vote Center strategy they were able to report that their 2003 experimentation with Vote Centers yielded an increase in voter turnout, a reduction in the number of poll workers needed to manage the election and satisfied voters:
The centers have been a huge success, said Clerk and Recorder Scott Doyle. Voters can cast ballots at any Vote Center in the county, as long as they can prove they are a registered voter. Doyle said each center has up to eight [electronic poll book voter qualification] registration computers when the doors open and that more are immediately brought in if there is a crush of voters [at a particular Vote Center location.] "We try and move people through like a checkout line at Albertsons," Doyle said.
Accessible voting places with ample parking and sufficient poll workers quickly check-in and help voters had a significant and positive effect on voter’s rating Larimer County's Vote Center experiment.

The 2003 Larimer County Vote Center pilot project was such a success that Colorado expanded the Vote Center program statewide for the 2006 general election. Unfortunately, many Colorado counties did not plan their 2006 Election Day Vote Center strategy as well as Larimer County planned for the 2003 election:
The Denver Post newspaper carried the headline, Vote Centers "A Total Fiasco": Vote Centers were designed to make casting ballots easier and more convenient, but on Tuesday, they produced jangled nerves, technological gaffes and long lines across Colorado.
. . .From urban Denver to suburban Douglas County to rural Routt County, there were long lines at Vote Centers. . . .Douglas County voters may have been hit the hardest, as some lined up more than four hours for a chance to cast a ballot.
. . .Denver voters faced two to three hour waits at the city's 55 Vote Centers. . . .Among the problems [causing the delays] were having only four or five [electronic poll book check-in] computers at a Vote Center to check-in hundreds of voters.

Rocky Mountain News carried a headline Ballot Bedlam: Voters at many of the city’s new 55 voting centers have been encountering long lines, computer problems and an inadequate number of computers to check proof of voter registration. . . .there were not enough workers to check identification cards.
. . .Denver election officials rebooted the whole computer system shortly after 1 p.m. in hopes of keeping the servers from crashing throughout the afternoon.
. . .At about 2 p.m., election officials sent 30 more [electronic poll book check-in] laptop computers to some of the most heavily used polling centers.
. . .By 3 p.m., election officials had sworn in 85 to 100 new election worhers; some city employees, others, private citizens. Those with election experience were working polling machines. Those who had no experience were asked to greet voters and hand out sample ballots.
Clearly, studied advanced planning to properly locate, equip and staff Election Day Vote Centers has tremendous impact on how well they serve voters on Election Day. However, little academic research has been conducted to explore the full effects of Vote Centers on overall voter turnout or voter turnout from specific segments of the electorate.

The few studies so far conducted indicate that accessibility to Vote Centers does have an impact on turnout among various segments of the population. Vote Center utilization has a modest positive impact on turnout among younger voters, infrequent voters and those who have not yet developed the voting habit. There are also some indications that Vote Centers, at least initially, may have a negative impact on turnout among older voters, voters who have historically strong voting habits of always returning to the same polling location, minority voters and lower income voters. As yet the full extent and causes for these voter turnout observations are not understood.

Because the Collin County Elections Administrator waited until mid-July to announce an intention to implement Vote Centers for the election this November, many people associated with the Democratic Party of Collin County are concerned there is not enough time to prepare a studied plan to properly locate, equip and staff Election Day Vote Centers by November 3rd. Neither is there enough time to adequately inform voters that they must go someplace different than their usual home precinct polling place to vote on November 3rd.

The Collin County Elections Administrator states her believe that the 2009 November general election presents a good opportunity to test Vote Centers because the election will be a very low turnout election with only Texas Constitutional Amendments on the ballot. That may or may not be the case depending on exactly when Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison resigns her senate seat this fall, to focus on her gubernatorial campaign against Gov. Perry for the March 2010 primary election, and what Gov. Perry decides to do in calling either a special or emergency election to fill the senate seat.
Gov. Perry has said he might expedite the date of the special election to replace Sen. Hutchison as soon as possible after her senate resignation because too many important things are going on in Washington, D.C. [StarTelegram blog, July 29]

Related Posts:

Related Links:
Proposed SOS schedule for implementing HB 719 for November 3, 2009 election:
  • July 15, 2009-Deadline to provide notice of intent to participate to the Secretary of State.
  • August 15, 2009-Selected counties must submit plan (items 1-3 above) for the program to Secretary of State by this date.
  • August 25, 2009-Deadline for SOS to approve proposed local plans for the program and provide detailed guidance on the information that will be requested from the Secretary of State and that will be included in the final report after each election held under the program. The counties will be required to submit this information to the Secretary of State no later than 30 days after the election.
  • September 4, 2009-Deadline for selected counties to submit local countywide program for pre-clearance with DOJ if countywide election precincts will be used at November 3, 2009 constitutional amendment election.
  • December 3, 2009-Deadline for county clerk/elections administrator to submit report on local countywide program to Secretary of State.
  • January 1, 2010-Deadline for Secretary of State to submit report on countywide program to Legislature.

The written implementation plan submitted to the SOS by August 15th must include how the county will comply with the following requirements:
  • Statement of Minimum Eligibility Requirements. The county plan must state that the county uses only DRE voting equipment, has access to a computerized voter registration list at each polling place to immediately record voting history, and has conducted the applicable public hearing.
  • Public Hearing Transcript. A transcript or electronic recording of the public hearing(s) in which voters were informed to the plan and opinions were solicited from voters, minority organizations, and other interested parties as described above, must be submitted. Methodology for Selecting Countywide Locations. A county that wishes to participate in the program must adopt a methodology to determine the placement of the countywide polling places. For an election held in the first year in which the county holds an election under the program, the total number of countywide polling places may not be less than 65% of the number of precinct polling places that would otherwise have been used in that election. For subsequent elections, this number drops to 50%. (We believe that the legislative intent is that a county must establish locations in 65%of the existing county election precincts.)
  • Notice and Outreach Plan. The county must develop a plan for providing notice and informing voters of the program and of the changes made to the locations of election day polling places that will occur. The county must solicit input from organizations that represent minority voters. At a minimum, an election day notice must be posted at each precinct polling place that was used in the last general election for state and county officers but will not be used in the election under this program which indicates the location of the nearest countywide polling place.
  • Submission to the U.S. Department of Justice. Participation in the program represents a change in voting that must be precleared with the U.S. Department of Justice ("DOJ") under Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act. DOJ will probably review the proposed number and locations of the countywide polling places to determine whether they could have any discriminatory effect on the basis of race or language group.
  • Joint Elections. Local political subdivisions may hold a joint election with a participating county. Remember that state law requires local political subdivisions using the November uniform election date (excluding certain water districts and other districts created pursuant to Section 52, Article III or Section 59, Article XVI of the Texas Constitution located within Harris County or counties bordering Harris County) to use the regular county polling places in the county election precincts that contain territory from their elections. Political subdivisions in participating counties would need to have a presence at each of the countywide polling places at which its voters would be eligible to appear, either through a joint election with the county or conducting its own polling place at each of the locations. Counties that wish to participate in the program will need to demonstrate that the details of local joint elections have been resolved or at least that the governing bodies have agreed that they will resolve such issues.
  • Polling Place Officials. While Section 43.007 does not explicitly address the question, we believe that the election officials at each of the countywide polling places would need to be appointed according to the same list procedure as Election Day judges and clerks to the extent possible. Again, counties that wish to participate in the program will need to demonstrate that the county commissioners court and the county chairs have resolved how polling place officials will be appointed.
  • Written Report. Section 43.007(j) requires the Office of the Secretary of State to me a report with the Legislature concerning the program, including a recommendation on the future use of countywide polling places on January 1 of each odd-numbered year. All counties that participate in the program will be expected to contribute their specific findings after each election held with countywide precincts, which will be included in the report.

No comments:

Post a Comment