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Report to the 82nd Legislature on House Bill 719, Relating to the Countywide Polling Place Program

Brief Overview

This report is submitted in accordance with House Bill 719, 81st Regular Session, 2009, which required the Secretary of State to continue the countywide election day polling places program (“Program”) for the 2009/2010 election cycle. Under the Program, counties were eligible to apply to use countywide voting locations (also known as "super precincts" or "vote centers") for elections held on the November 2009 and 2010 uniform election dates and elections held countywide on the May uniform election date, instead of providing polling places at each regular county election precinct. Participation in the Program is limited to those counties that exclusively use direct recording electronic ("DRE") voting systems and provide a computerized and linked voter registration list at each countywide polling place.

Background

House Bill 758 was enacted by the 79th Legislature and required the Secretary of State to establish a pilot program in one or more counties as a test of the countywide voting location concept. Lubbock County was the only county to participate, successfully running a countywide polling place pilot for the November 2006 General Election for State and County Officers. In the next regular legislative session, the 80th Legislature enacted House Bill 3105, authorizing another pilot program for the 2008 election year. The pilot was limited to elections held countywide on the May uniform election date and the November 4, 2008 General Election for State and County Officers, excluding the March and April 2008 Primary Elections. House Bill 3105 contained a number of changes from the previous legislation. Specifically, it added language requiring the county to adopt a methodology for determining its polling place locations and limited participating counties to reducing the total number of polling places to no more than fifty percent of the number of precinct polling places that would normally be used in the county. Only Lubbock and Erath Counties participated in the H.B. 3105 program. House Bill 719 was enacted by the 81st Legislature, and it made the pilot program permanent. It added language requiring a county to retain 65 percent of the number of precinct polling places that would normally have been used in its elections in the county’s first election using countywide polling places. House Bill 719 also limited the Secretary of State to choosing three counties with a population of 100,000 or more and two counties with a population of less than 100,000 for each election under the pilot program.

Implementation of Current Program

Four counties were selected for the November 3, 2009 uniform election date: Collin, Erath, Galveston, and Lubbock Counties. Four counties were selected for the November 2, 2010 General Election for State and County Officers: Collin, Erath, Lubbock and Madison Counties. Each county was required to file a report with the Office of the Secretary of State regarding the implementation in their county, and all the county reports are available on the Secretary of State website.

Collin County

According to the 2000 Census, Collin County’s population is 671,909.

2009

Collin County’s initial election under the pilot program was in the November 3, 2009 Constitutional Amendment Election. In the previous constitutional amendment election held in November 2007, Collin County used 59 county election polling places and used 57 countywide election day polling places for the November 2009 election. While the county reduced its number of polls, most were placed at locations that had generally been used before as precinct polling places.

Turnout Trends

Collin County had a 7.48% turnout for its November 3, 2009 Constitutional Amendment Election. This represented a .06% decrease from the November 2007 Constitutional Amendment Election. In comparison, statewide turnout for the two elections decreased by .06%.

Public Feedback

After the election, the county received a positive report from the Collin County Republican Chair. Collin County included a study of its use of countywide election day polling places conducted by Robert Stein of Rice University. The study included an exit poll which asked voters to evaluate their experiences with the pilot program. The study determined that most voters were very satisfied with voting at the countywide locations. With that said, compared to Denton County, which was holding a precinct-based election on the same day, more Collin County voters reported having to wait in line to vote than Denton County voters. At the extreme end, 4.3% of the polled Collin voters waited more than 20 minutes against 0% of the Denton County voters. The study points to two issues that might have contributed to this difference. First, while 18% of the total vote in the Denton County election was cast at 10% of the county’s election day polling locations, with the choice available to voters in Collin County, a third of the vote was cast in just 10% of the countywide election polling places. The study also notes that in comparison, Denton County had more voting systems per location than Collin County did and suggests that the fewer number of machines may have contributed to slightly longer voting times at the countywide election day polling places. The study concluded that increasing the number and size of countywide polling place locations and the number of voting systems at each location should be a goal for a larger turnout election.

2010

Collin County also took part in the pilot program for the November 2, 2010 election and used 72 countywide election day polling places in anticipation of higher turnout. In the morning, the county experienced a technical issue at the polls with its electronic poll books. The election department created a fix and submitted it to the polling places by 9:00 on election day, but until the patch was updated, the poll books were shutting down at 15 minute intervals, which caused delays for voters. At other locations, judges reported delays of up to 30-45 minutes for voters, especially towards the end of the day. One polling place, Christ United Methodist Church was open as late as 10:30 p.m. on election night after the polls closed.

Turnout Trends

Collin County had a 37.18% turnout for the November 2, 2010 general election. This represented a 0.86% increase in turnout from the County’s 2006 non-presidential general election. In the 2010 general election, 58% of the total vote was cast during early voting with 42% of the total vote cast on election day. In the 2006 general election, 45% of the total vote was cast early and 55% on election day. This increase in the early vote as a percentage of the total vote is in keeping with statewide trends.

Public Feedback

The county included e-mails from election judges and clerks who served in the election with its report. These officials in large part approved of the countywide polling places as a concept but pointed to two challenges. First, they suggested the locations needed more computers, printers, and electronic poll books. They reported that many of the polling places had a single laptop and printer and when either one went offline, it served as a bottleneck that led to lines and delays. Correspondents state the same to have been true of the electronic poll books used to qualify voters. Apparently, had more of these devices been available at the polling places, officials could have processed voters more efficiently. A number of election officials also pointed to confusion by voters regarding the countywide polling place concept and suggested the county could have done more to educate voters. During election day, the county posted approximate wait times at the polling places to its website. Election officials believed voters found the information useful and the feature could be expanded to include more timely updates and postings to social media.

After the election, the Secretary of State received a number of direct e-mails for the most part from election judges and clerks who served in the election concerning the pilot program. These e-mails noted many of the same challenges, apparent bottlenecks created at some locations by a lack of equipment, suggested additional training for election judges and clerks, and suggested having more election officials at each vote center to most efficiently process voters.

Erath County

According to the 2000 Census, Erath County’s population is 34,124.

2009

The November 3, 2009 Constitutional Amendment Election was the second use of the Program by Erath County. Erath County regularly has twenty county election polling places. For the November 2009 election, this was reduced to four countywide election polling places for the relatively low turnout expected in an odd-numbered November Constitutional Amendment Election. Erath County placed a location in each county commissioners precinct.

Turnout Trends

The county uses Votec’s Vote Here election management system and reported no problems at its election day polling places. The total vote was 1,939 votes cast, which represented a 9.4% turnout. The Honorable Gwinda Jones, Erath County Clerk, noted in her report that the trend for the odd-numbered year constitutional amendment elections in Erath County is that more voters vote on election day than vote early. This trend is in contrast to the general state trends and the county trends for even-numbered year elections. The election day percentages of the vote increased from 57% in November 2005 to 59% in November 2007 to 65% in the 2009 November election.

Public Feedback

The county circulated a questionnaire for election day voters. Voters who completed the questionnaire overwhelmingly approved of the countywide polling places and wished to see its use continued in future elections. According to the questionnaire, in November 2009, 55% of the voters voted outside their commissioner’s precinct. In the previous election using countywide election polling places, 65% of the voters had voted at the polling place closest to their house. The Erath County Clerk believes that this represents a change as the voters become used to the convenience of voting at any election day location.

After the election, the county received positive reports from both the Democratic and Republican Party Chairs. A representative of the Erath County Hispanic Business Council also expressed support for use of countywide election polling places going forward. Erath County surveyed its election officials to determine whether there had been any problems in the election in terms of the voting system or the electronic poll books. Again, no problems were reported.

2010

Erath County also took part in the Program for the November 2, 2010 General Election for state and county officers. Erath County used 11 countywide election polling places in lieu of its normal 20 county election precinct polling places. There were no polling place problems reported to the Secretary of State.

Turnout Trends

In the 2010 General Election, 52.3% of the total vote was cast on election day, with a 41.3% turnout. In comparison, in the 2006 general election for state and county officers, 53.1% of the total vote was cast on election day with a 37.7% overall turnout.

Public Feedback

Erath County included a voter questionnaire in its report. 98% of the respondents indicated that they liked the countywide polling places, and 90% of the respondents said that it was convenient to choose a location rather than having to vote at the voter’s home precinct polling place. 67% of the respondents said they had voted at a location closest to their home, while 20% were voting closest to their place of employment.

The county’s report includes emails and statements from county stakeholders including the Republican and Democratic Party Chairs, the Stephenville ISD Superintendent, and local minority and community leaders indicating that the election was a success and recommended the county continue to use countywide election day polling places in future elections.

Galveston County

According to the 2000 census, Galveston County’s population is 286,814.

2009

Galveston County’s initial use of countywide election polling places was in the November 3, 2009 Constitutional Amendment Election. In its implementation plan, Galveston County increased the number of voting locations available on election day from 17 in the 2007 Constitutional Amendment Election to 40 for the November 3, 2009 Constitutional Amendment Election.

Due to 2008’s Hurricane Ike, the Galveston County’s Elections Department already had in place a program to inform voters of polling place election changes. Galveston County used this system, along with contacts in the community such as LULAC and the NAACP, to provide information to voters on Galveston County’s shift to countywide polling places for the November 3, 2009 Constitutional Amendment Election.

On election day, Galveston County encountered connectivity problems with its linked voter registration system. According to the county’s report, eight of the 40 locations were fully functional when the polls opened at 7:00 a.m. By 7:30 a.m., 20 locations were operational. 31 locations were up and running by 8:00 a.m. and by 11:30 a.m. that morning, 39 of the 40 countywide polling places were fully functional. The remaining location experienced technical difficulties all day. Election judges and clerks called the Galveston County Voter Registrar to verify the status of each voter at that location. Apart from connectivity challenges, different polling places reported different circumstances. At one polling place located in a school building, for example, the Galveston County’s wireless card could not gain access through the school’s firewall. At another location, the layout of the polling place originally had the antenna near a steel wall, which inhibited the connection. Galveston County had tested the wireless signals prior to election day and had provided two laptops for each location. Galveston County had also set aside personnel across the county to serve as roving troubleshooters on election day, which proved essential.

Turnout Trends

Galveston County had a 7.23% turnout for the November 3, 2009 Constitutional Amendment Election, as compared to a 7.32% turnout in the November 2007 Constitutional Amendment Election.

Public Feedback

After the election, Galveston County received a complaint from Advocacy, Inc. regarding the accessibility of two of its countywide polling place locations. Galveston County disagreed with the complaint, stating in its report that it had reviewed and believed the two locations did have ramps and side entrances that were accessible to voters. Galveston County’s report did note that at the gymnasium, the location of the parking for disabled voters was not clearly marked.

In its report, the Galveston County Election’s Department concluded that the county would need to purchase additional equipment, increase training, and increase locations to conduct future elections using countywide election polling places, especially in elections with a greater turnout than an odd-numbered year November election.

Lubbock County

According to the 2000 census, Lubbock County’s population is 270,550.

2009

The county used countywide election day polling places (which it calls “vote centers” in its report) in the November 3, 2009 Constitutional Amendment Election. As it has in previous pilot elections, Lubbock County appointed a site selection committee to determine its countywide polling place locations. The committee consisted of members of the Lubbock County commissioners court, leaders from the minority community, and advocates for the disabled community. Lubbock County has 69 regular county election precincts and reduced the number to 40 countywide precincts for the November 3, 2009 Constitutional Amendment Election. In addition, the election was held jointly with the City of Lubbock.

Lubbock County provided information to voters on the polling place locations through radio, television and print media, along with an election day phone bank and text messaging to inform voters of their voting options. A list of the countywide polling places was also mailed to each non-suspense registered voter.

On election day, Lubbock County used Votec’s Vote Here election management software and reported no problems at its election day polling places.

Turnout Trends

Lubbock County reported 8,902 votes were cast on election day using the countywide polling places. Turnout was 14.15%, which was above the state average turnout of 8.11%.

Public Feedback

No substantive election day problems were reported to the Secretary of State either by Lubbock County or through other sources.

2010

The November 2, 2010 General Election for State and County Officers was Lubbock County’s fifth election using countywide election day polling places. The county has 69 county election polling places and reduced that number to 38 countywide polling places for the November general election. As it has in the past, Lubbock County appointed an advisory board consisting of the political party chairs, representatives for Advocacy, Inc., local minority and community groups and staff from the county elections administrator’s office. The advisory board assisted the elections administrator in determining the number of polling places and the best locations to encourage a high level turnout.

The Lubbock County Elections Administrator informed this office that educating voters about the pilot program and its effect on the election was a priority. The elections administrator’s report noted that its primary focus is informing the public regarding polling locations. Lubbock County used radio, television, and local newspapers to publicize the upcoming elections, manned an election day phone bank to guide voters to the nearest polling place, and also used text messaging to contact voters with information on voting locations. Lubbock County also mailed a letter to non-suspense voters to inform them of the voting locations within the county.

Again, Lubbock County used its Vote Here election management system to maintain its real-time computerized list of registered voters. No one reported substantive election day problems (either by Lubbock County or through other sources).

Turnout Trends

The turnout for Lubbock County’s November 2, 2010 General Election for State and County Officers was 54,373. Comparing turnout for past gubernatorial general elections, the 2010 results represent a gain from the 2006 turnout, which was 53,609, but a decrease from 2002’s 56,395 turnout. Also interesting is the decrease in election day voting as a percentage of the total vote. In 2010, election day represented 35% of the total vote down from 57% in 2002 and 46% in 2006. While the trend is towards an increase in early voting as a percentage of the vote, Lubbock County’s trend, in which 65% voted early is certainly an outlier. By way of comparison in the November 2002 General Election for State and County Officers, statewide early voting was 13.00% of the total and in the November 2006 General Election for State and County Officers, early voting was 13.22% of the total vote statewide.

Public Feedback

After the election, Lubbock County solicited comments from members of its advisory board and the other political subdivisions that took part in the process. An Advocacy, Inc. representative praised the countywide polling places because having fewer locations allowed an interpreter to be present at each location. Secretary of State received uniformly positive reviews on the countywide polling place process.

Madison County

According to the 2000 Census, Madison County’s population is 13,333.

Madison County’s first use of countywide election polling places was in the November 2, 2010 General Election for State and County Officers. In its implementation plan, Madison County declined to reduce the number of election precincts for its first election under the Program. To concentrate on the administrative process of linking the polling places, the county retained its normal eight election day polling places, but each was a countywide polling place allowing voters to vote at any one of the eight polling places.

Mr. Earl C. Parker, the Madison County Elections Administrator, held four community forums for local groups, such as the Madison County Republican Party, a “Tea Party” group, the Retired Teachers Association, and downtown merchants to explain the new election procedures. Madison County also reached out to local media to disseminate information on the countywide polling places, posted information on the pilot at each post office serving the county, and at each of the polling places. Madison County used the Votec’s Vote Safe election management system software, and the Madison County Elections Administrator held two three-hour sessions for election judges and clerks to train them on the new system.

On election day, the county equipped each polling place with a laptop and a wireless card for access to the computerized voter registration list. Madison County tested reception prior to election day and experienced a reception problem at the Elwood Baptist Church polling place which it resolved prior to the beginning of voting. No one reported problems with the laptops or wireless connections during election day. Madison County reports there were 18-20 voters not processed through Vote Safe because their names had not been included when the computerized list finalized prior to election day. These voters had to be qualified to vote by contacting the voter registrar directly.

Turnout Trends

Reviewing the election results, in a comparison between the last gubernatorial General Election, Madison County had a total voter increase of 274 votes from the 2006 General Election in which 2,970 persons voted and the 2010 General Election for State and County Officers in which 3,244 votes were cast. With that said, the increase appears to have come from early voting rather than election day voting. Early voting increased by 467 votes compared to 2006 while election day voting decreased by 173 votes.

Public Feedback

Post election, the Madison County Judge, the County Elections Administrator, Democratic and Republican Party County Chairs, and the representative from the retired teacher’s association (who also served as an election day judge) expressed satisfaction with the county’s implementation, and additionally, the County Judge and the County Elections Administrator expressed hope to continue with this Program in the future.

Recommendations

After three cycles of the countywide polling place Program, there is still a relatively small sample size from which to make observations and recommendations.

First Recommendation

Expanding the number of counties in the pilot coincides with those who have already participated successfully taking allotted spaces. House Bill 719 provides for the Secretary of State to include three counties with a population of 100,000 or more and two counties with a population below 100,000 to take part in each election. Practically, these figures may overstate the expansion of the pilot because some or all of the previously participating counties are likely to keep wishing to participate for various reasons. This proved to be a challenge for the November 2010 General Election cycle when our office received valid applications from both Madison and Jack County, both with populations under 100,000. This office would have allowed both counties to use countywide polling places in the November 2, 2010 General Election had there been room in the program. Accordingly, the Legislature may wish to explore ways to allow previously participating counties to continue without taking a spot in the program or increase the number of counties in the program.

We also note that Erath County suggested that counties be allowed to use the countywide election polling places in primary elections. The Erath County Clerk believes some county voters may become confused when the county has to return to normal election day precinct procedures in a county that has taken part in multiple Programs and worked to educate its voters on the countywide election polling place concept.

Second Recommendation

The Secretary of State also suggests the Legislature examine whether to require the first election at which countywide polling places are used to be an election other than the November general election for state and county officers. This change would allow county election officials, local political subdivisions within the county, and the voters of the county to become familiar with the concept and in effect run a smaller scale election with countywide election day polling places before deciding whether the county should apply to use the countywide polling places in a November General Election. To facilitate an interested county’s ability to take part in a pilot election on the May uniform election date, we would recommend allowing counties to participate in the pilot on the May uniform date even if the county itself is not having an election but has contracted with local political subdivisions to hold their elections. We note that no counties have yet applied for the Program on the May uniform date; generally, counties are not holding their own elections on that date and are not eligible as the statute is currently written (i.e., “countywide elections”).

Overall Observations

For the moment, countywide polling places effects on voter turnout are difficult to gauge. However, anecdotal evidence from the participating counties, 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 challenges that have arisen with countywide polling places appear to predominate in larger counties that can experience a high turnout. If the countywide polling place does not have sufficient equipment and personnel, delays can occur. The bottlenecks have seemed to occur not in the availability of the DRE voting systems, but at the voter qualification point, either due to the number of electronic poll books and laptops or backups for when those devices fail. As Galveston County noted in its report, this may point to the need for an increased investment in equipment. However, with the number of polling places reduced and the voting machines congregated at a countywide polling place, the counties have been able to provide an adequate number of voting systems. A larger county may need to invest in more electronic pollbooks, more backup laptops, and more election personnel at each polling place. Some of these observations may be reflective of the fact that most counties purchased DREs with their HAVA compliance funds while they acquire poll books on their own with non-federal funds.

Statutory considerations

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Each county's submitted reports are available below.