Report to the 80th Legislature on House Bill 758,
Relating to Countywide Polling Place Pilot Program
This report is submitted in accordance with House Bill 758, 79th Regular Session, 2005, which required the Secretary of State to establish a pilot program for the November 7, 2006 general election for state and county officers in which counties would conduct election day voting at countywide voting locations (also termed "super precincts" or "vote centers"), instead of providing polling places in each county election precinct as generally required under the Texas Election Code (the "Code"). Potential participants in the pilot program were limited to counties which use direct recording electronic ("DRE") voting systems and which provide a computerized and linked voter registration list at each polling place. In addition, counties that wished to participate were required to conduct a public hearing prior to joining the pilot program and submit a transcript of the hearing to the Secretary of State.
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 to establish the efficacy of the countywide election precinct concept. Countywide election precincts are a concept that seems to have arisen in the wake of the federal Help America Vote Act, which required the presence of an accessible voting system at each polling place in a federal election. Some experts believe that countywide election precincts may increase voter turnout since voters may vote at any location convenient to them. In some states, including Texas, the countywide polling places could eliminate the existing requirement that a voter may vote only at the polling place where he or she is registered on election day, which is challenging to many voters who may no longer reside near their registered precinct or who may have difficulty locating their specific polling place on Election Day.
Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, and Michigan have expressed various degrees of interest in reviewing the vote center concept, but at present, Colorado is the only state that has actually adopted countywide precincts permanently into its state law. Larimer County, Colorado conducted successful elections using vote centers in 2003 and 2004, reducing the number of polling places from 143 precinct polling places to 22 vote centers, each linked with a computerized voter registration list to prevent voters from being able to cast votes at multiple vote centers on election day. In addition, some election professionals believe that with a reduced number of polling places, election officials could more effectively and efficiently run elections in accessible locations staffed by better trained personnel. However, in the interest of full disclosure, the City of Denver had a different experience in November 2006 election. In this election, Denver replaced its normal precinct polling places with 55 vote centers. The election was marred with long lines for voters at some of the vote centers. The city was forced to send additional laptops to some vote centers to speed up the voter qualification process. The city also had to locate additional election officials to accommodate the unexpected turnout. After the election, Denver election officials blamed inadequately-trained election judges and clerks, too few check-in computers at the vote centers, and an overloaded central computer that had to be rebooted at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. on election day.
Following the passage of House Bill 758, there was some discussion of whether the bill required countywide polling places in addition to election day precinct polling places or whether the requirement was in lieu of the traditional election day polling places. Chairwoman Denny wrote a letter concerning this issue, and clarified that the intent of the law was to allow for a pilot in which countywide locations were to be used in lieu of the regular precinct polling place locations.
The Texas Secretary of State solicited counties to participate in the pilot program at its August 2005 Seminar for County Clerks and Elections Administrators. House Bill 758 was also addressed in the Secretary of State's 79th Legislative Session Summary, a document which is prepared at the end of each regular session detailing election-related changes to state laws, and is mailed to each county clerk, county voter registrar, and county elections administrator. The Secretary of State also sent a memorandum to the county judges and elections administrators in counties which expressed interest in participating in the pilot program informing them of the pilot program and the requirements to participate. Our memorandum, a copy of which is attached, included, but was not limited to, a discussion of the following requirements:
- Public Hearing.
House Bill 758 required that a public hearing must be conducted by the participating county; therefore, for a county to be considered eligible to participate in this pilot program, the Secretary of State emphasized that the chairs of the county Democratic and Republican parties, as well as local minority and community organizations, would need to provide feedback and/or express support for participation in the pilot, either at the public hearing or under separate cover.
- Participation by local entities conducting November 2006 elections.
House Bill 758 did not address other governmental entities within the county, such as municipalities, school districts, water districts, and other political subdivisions, which often rely on the county clerk or elections administrator to conduct or assist in conducting their elections. The Secretary of State required the county to solicit the support of each political subdivision in the county that might have an election on the November 6, 2006 uniform election date. This was necessary because of changes in the Code which had served to move many elections from other uniform election dates to the November uniform election date. House Bill 57 eliminated the February and September uniform election dates and opened a period for political subdivisions to move the date of their general elections to the May or November uniform election dates. Additionally, House Bill 1209 required political subdivisions to use the county election precincts when conducting elections on the November uniform election dates. While House Bill 1209 did not directly address countywide voting locations, the Secretary of State interpreted it as requiring a political subdivision having an election on the November uniform date to have a presence at each of the countywide voting locations so that these voters would not have to travel to multiple polling places to vote in all the elections in which they were entitled to vote, which was the intent of House Bill 1209. The Secretary of State, therefore, required the counties who wanted to participate to show support for the countywide polling locations from these local political subdivisions conducting elections on the November uniform election date. Only one county, Lubbock, submitted an application to participate in the pilot program that satisfied all the requirements. Anecdotally, the major hurdle for smaller counties appeared to be the requirement that the vote centers be linked with a computerized voter registration list. For some of them, this would have required an additional outlay for laptops for the vote centers.
In the end, Lubbock County was the only participant in the pilot program. A copy of the county's application and a transcript from the public hearing is enclosed. The county elections administrator also included a post-election report, which also is enclosed. We note that while the county garnered support from local political subdivisions and was prepared to accommodate their elections, the local elections were eventually cancelled in accordance with Chapter 2, Subchapter C of the Texas Election Code. This made the pilot program easier to implement for the county, but it would be useful for a future pilot to see the effect on multiple elections, especially as far as ballot programming issues are concerned.
As Lubbock County held a mock election prior to the November election, it discovered areas in which the voting systems fell short. When printing zero tapes (a printed record that indicates that there are no votes resident on the machine which is printed at the precinct prior to the polls opening) from each DRE, the machine would print totals from each candidate in each race for each county election precinct. The result was that each machine was taking a significant amount of time to complete the process of printing its tape. The Secretary of State authorized the county to print the zero tape at the warehouse prior to delivery at the polling location. The tape would remain attached to the machine and the judge initialed that the tape had not been tampered or detached before opening the polls. A similar problem arose for poll closing. Normally, the precinct judge is required to print multiple result tapes, which are distributed among various election officials. In this case, because there were multiple precincts programmed on each DRE, the result tape took 45 minutes and multiple rolls of paper. The Secretary of State authorized an alternate method, allowing the county to avoid printing the tally at the machine, instead relying on the MBB, a flash memory device, to transfer results to election central, while printing an access code report on the machine and comparing the number of input access code to the numbers to the combination forms to ensure that the number of voters signed in matched the number of voters who voted at the precinct.
Post Election Data
Because of the county's meticulous planning prior to the election, there were no significant problems on election day. The county provided 35 vote centers, replacing its usual 69 county election precincts; however, it retained 8 of the regular election precincts which were located in its rural areas. The Lubbock County report details the effort the county made to inform voters of the change in the usual procedures. In response to concerns about the expense some voters might incur traveling by bus to a vote center, the county worked with its mass transit authority to provide free bus service on election day for voters who showed their registration certificate. The Secretary of State asked the county to conduct a questionnaire on election day to gauge voter satisfaction with the vote centers. A copy of the results of the questionnaire is included with the county's post election report. We note that 95% of the voters who completed the questionnaire approved of the vote centers and wished to see the concept continued for future elections. Interestingly, there was a split of 50% of the voters who completed the questionnaire using the center closest to their homes and 30% using the vote center nearest their place of employment. The Lubbock County Elections Administrator received eleven complaints forwarded from the county Democratic chair, most of which she states involved personnel or training issues. The turnout in the gubernatorial race was 33.81%. This was a decrease from the 36.46% turnout in the 2002 gubernatorial election, but a small increase from the 1998 gubernatorial election turnout, which was 33.74%. The county noted that the decrease in turnout was a small one and that the election served as a proof of concept for countywide election precincts, with an expectation that turnout would increase if this method of election was continued in the future.
Regarding costs, the Lubbock County Election Administrator has stated that there were no cost savings for November 2006, but that she expected cost savings eventually once the “start-up” costs were absorbed.
1. The pilot program should be continued and expanded to include up to five counties, including a sample of small, mid-sized and urban counties. The pilot should also be expanded for elections of political subdivisions other than counties. Lubbock County has provided a base to build on for future election officials, but one election is not a large enough sample to determine the efficacy of countywide election precincts statewide. Additional pilots are necessary so that the state can gather enough data to establish the number of countywide polling places that should be required and to determine whether there may be some additional, unforeseen consequences of countywide polling places.
2. Legislation should clarify that in an election in which countywide precincts are used, the county is not required to also provide its normal election day precincts or in the alternative, authorize a mix of the two systems. This was a point of contention during the period, in which the Secretary of State was soliciting counties for the pilot program.
3. Legislation should explicitly address whether local political subdivisions are required to conduct their elections at the countywide election precincts along with the counties or at separate polling places, contrary to the intent of House Bill 1209 passed by the 79th Legislature. House Bill 758's successor should codify the Secretary of State's interpretation that in an election in which countywide election precincts are used, voters should be able to vote in all local political subdivision elections in which they are entitled to vote at any countywide election precinct.
4. Legislation should clarify how polling place officials should be appointed. The traditional list process under Section 32.002 of the Texas Election Code, does not work with countywide polling places. Under current election law, for each county election precinct, the election judge is selected from a list submitted by the county party chair whose gubernatorial candidate won the election precinct. House Bill 758 did not address how the judges should be selected for countywide election precincts. Further, many election judges are often not very well versed in matters involving the latest in election technology. Increasingly, election judges and clerks need to have a basic familiarity with technology in order to function efficiently. To address this concern, the Lubbock County Elections Administrator has suggested authorizing the use of students to assist in elections.
5. In anticipation of future pilot elections or a general use of countywide election precincts, the Secretary of State should begin to review each voting system submitted for certification to determine whether or not it is suited for use in such elections. The Secretary of State should also review voting system procedures to determine possible changes necessary to facilitate a county's ability to conduct elections using the countywide precinct model in ways that do not compromise voting system security.