Sunday, July 19, 2009

Consolidated Polling Centers Coming To Collin Co. Next Election Day?

In mid-July Collin Co. notified the Texas Secretary of State (SOS) that the county wants to be selected to join Texas' ongoing Vote Center trial program. The Collin County 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, as authorized by the Texas legislature earlier this year. Under the provisions of this program there are many fewer than usual Election Day polling places, but each Election Day polling place acts like Early Voting locations where any Collin County voter can vote at any consolidated polling place in Collin County.
The Collin County Elections office proposed a similar plan in 2006, to participate in the "consolidated polling centers" pilot, by reducing the number of election day polling places from 135 to 30 for the November general election of that year. After both the Republican and Democratic Parties objected, that 2006 plan was scrapped. [Collin County Observer]
The Election Day "vote anywhere" feature of the "consolidated polling center" plan sounds like a good idea, but when Lubbock County tried a similar reduction of polling locations in the 2006 pilot program, there was a 25% reduction in voter participation in the most heavily minority precincts, a fact that was excluded from the report submitted by the county and the SOS to the Texas Legislature this year.

Late in the 2009 legislative session the Texas legislature passed HB719. HB719, which becomes effective on September 1, 2009, allows up to three counties with more than 100K in population and two counties with less than 100K in population to participate in a continuation of Texas' consolidated polling center experimental program. 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 a pilot project to consolidate polling locations.

Bottom line, two additional larger counties and one smaller county will be selected by the Texas Secretary of State to expand the experimental program and Collin County is asking to be one of those larger counties allowed to join the program. Each county that is selected by the SOS to participate must report to the SOS with the results after each election trial, and the SOS itself must report to the Legislature, in January 2011, what the results of the experiment were.

HB719 as signed by the Governor had grafted into it, in the last week of the session, SB 1310 by Duncan, which was a stalled bill that included a provision to reduce the number of precinct polling places. For the first year, those counties that participate in the consolidated polling center program may eliminate up to 35% of the precinct polling places, and for the second year, they may eliminate up to 50% of the precinct polling places. (The House Elections Committee held a public hearing on SB 1310 on May 12, 2009, and the hearing on this bill begins at 47:28 on the video record that can be found here.)

Three officials from Lubbock County testified in favor of the bill, and none of them mentioned the Lubbock County Democratic Party's dissatisfaction with the Lubbock County experiment due what they characterized as the 25% reduction in turnout in minority precinct polling places, compared to a 12% reduction in Republican precinct polling places.

Luis Figeroa of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund testified in opposition to SB 1310 (and said they would change their position to neutral if the bill was limited to a pilot project), and Dustin Rynders of Advocacy, Inc. expressed support for having flexibility about where people could vote, but expressed caution that there is concern with actually closing precinct polling locations. Anita Privett of the League of Women Voters also expressed concerns about limiting the number of precinct polling places.

The SOS will, by August 28th, select the two additional larger counties and one smaller county to join the Vote Center Trial 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.

Many voters, especially low-income minority voters that cannot afford the newspaper, have a routine of going to their traditional neighborhood polling place without looking up anything in the paper about voting locations. Many elderly and low-income voters also often have difficulty reaching the consolidated polling centers, which are more distant from their homes than the traditional precinct polling places. DOJ pre-clearance is a major factor in this process, and will have ultimate say on whether a given consolidated polling center implementation plan will pass "Voting Rights Act" scrutiny.

Consolidating polling centers have resulted in long voter lines at the fewer in number consolidated polling centers in Denver and other cities. Studies have also shown that poorly planned consolidate polling center programs have resulting in long voter lines and lower voter turnout, especially among young and minority voters. [Collin County Observer]

According to an article in the Collin County Observer, Larimer County in Colorado is frequently cited as an example of how well countywide polling centers can work to both save money and increase voter participation in elections.
Larimer County has successfully reduced its number of election day polling places from 143 to 22, without suppressing voter turnout.

It accomplished this by careful planning and:
  • Voter education - several mailings to each registered voter listing the location of new polling locations.
  • Dedicated communications using T-1 network connections directly from each polling place to the county elections office.
  • Choosing polling locations that had an abundance of parking, frequently using large churches, whose parking lots are not in use on a Tuesday election day.
Collin County's 2006 plan, however:
  • Planned no mailings to voters
  • Had no dedicated communication, instead relying on existing and in some places dial-up connections.
  • Planned to use schools and government building that had little available parking.
Collin County's 2006 consolidated polling center plan had far too few locations, and too many were rural locations resulting in, for example, only one polling place for all of Frisco.

Elections are expensive. Efforts to cut election budgets can make consolidating voting precincts seem very attractive. However, the evidence suggests that before savings can be realized, investments must be made in voter notification, communications infrastructure, and polling place locations.

If the commissioners court does want to entertain the idea of reducing the number of polls by creating countywide super polls it, will need to create a bi-partisan committee to study all the implications and propose a budget and plan. Attempting to impose a quick-fix scheme, such as was done in 2006, will create controversy and likely result in a plan doomed to failure.
Perhaps taking some advice from the Collin County Observer, the Collin County Elections Administrator has asked the county commissioner's court to hold a public hearing meeting for Monday July 20th to take public comment on the consolidated polling center plan. "We will discuss processes utilized by Lubbock County in their successful pilot program elections. I will ask the [Collin County Commissioners] Court to select a site selection committee to assist with the evaluation and selection of the sites to be utilized on the November 3, 2009, Uniform Election Date," the Elections Administrator writes in her notice of the public hearing to local politicos.
The Collin County Observer posts a copy of the "notice" from the Texas Secretary of State concerning the countys' interest in forming "consolidate polling centers" on election day. The Observer has a few additional details as well - see Collin County Observer: Public hearing scheduled for Countwide Vote Center plan

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