Local election officials in Texas are scrambling to find enough polling sites willing to host voters in the upcoming presidential election.
Texas is one of a few states that has not expanded absentee or mail-in voting during the COVID-19 pandemic, which means in-person voting will be the primary way voters cast their ballots in November. As a result, election officials here have been looking for enough polling sites that can accommodate a high turnout, as well as keep voters safe.
Ali Lozano, the voting rights outreach coordinator for the Texas Civil Rights Project, said there’s a lot more that local officials have to plan for ahead of this election.
“It’s of the outmost importance that election administrators and county officials start preparing now,” she said, “to make sure that we have enough polling locations, enough poll workers, and that everybody knows what they need to be doing in order to make everyone feel safe.”
Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir plans to have more than 30 early-voting sites and 200 Election Day locations. So far, she said, finding those polling locations has been a challenge.
“A lot of the owners of the facilities we want won’t give us an answer for sure one way or another that we can or cannot use the facility,” she said. It's particularly hard to find places willing to have a lot of people gather on their property during a pandemic, she said.
For years, grocery stores have been popular polling sites in Austin because they are so convenient. But COVID-19 has made them terrible places to vote, DeBeauvoir said.
“There’s no way to socially distance the voters – especially from the shoppers,” she said. “And it was just too close, too crowded. It was never going to work.”
DeBeauvoir said she relied heavily on schools during the primary runoff elections a few weeks ago. But schools may not be a reliable option if they reopen at some point in the fall.
Chris Davis, the election administrator for Williamson County, said voting sites that traditionally cater to older voters are likely not safe options, either.
“We are relatively certain we are going to take off the table nursing homes and assisted living that we have used and enjoyed – and the residents had enjoyed in the past– as Election Day polling places,” he said.
Davis, who is also an official with the Texas Association of Election Administrators, said it's not a good idea to switch up polling locations because it can confuse voters.
Election officials are going to have to get creative if they plan to replace some of the traditional options that are now considered less safe, he said. Counties will need to tailor solutions toward their respective situations.
“It’s not going to be uniform from one county to another," Davis said.
DeBeauvoir said she’s hunting around Austin for some unusual sites – many of which are privately owned.
“We are considering all kinds of new buildings – lobbies and amenity centers for apartment complexes, hotel ballrooms,” she said. “All of those are under consideration.”
One possible downside, DeBeauvoir said, is that privately owned sites may cost more to rent.
In Williamson County, Davis said he’s looking for more open-air options in an effort to help reduce the potential spread of the coronavirus.
“We are considering sites that we can have kind of a robust drive-thru voting," he said, "say a defunct or closed bank with several teller lanes, as well as parking garages … something that can give one-stop service.”
Where these new polling sites are located matters, too.
Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center's Voting Rights and Elections Program, said election officials also have to be mindful of how voting locations are distributed in their counties.
“They need to make sure that there’s enough polling places in the communities that need them,” she said, “especially in communities that are underserved or have low rates of vote-by-mail usage.”
And not having enough polling sites could lead to longer lines. The state has roughly 750 fewer polling sites than it did about a decade ago, so Lozano said many counties are already at risk. Plus, voting during the pandemic is going to take longer than it did in 2016 because of added safety measures.
“And that’s if people keep the same amount of polling locations,” Lozano said. “If we have even less polling locations with these added steps, it’s just a perfect storm for problems that is absolutely going to lead to longer lines if we do not substantively prepare now.”
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