Victoria Commissioners reject countywide poll centers
BY MELISSA CROWE - MCROWE@VICAD.COM
Feb. 11, 2013 at 5:03 p.m.
Updated Feb. 10, 2013 at 8:11 p.m.
• Approved special warranty deed for the Victoria County Sheriff's Office to allow land for equipment storage and maintenance.
• Approved resolution to support a bill that would ease restrictions on hotel occupancy tax dollars to improve city-owned sports facilities.
• Approved plans for the installation of grade crossing warning devices at Nursery Road at U.S. Highway 87 in Precinct 2.
After weeks of back and forth about countywide polling sites, Victoria County Commissioners let their silence do the talking Monday.
For the time being, registered voters will vote at their assigned precinct site for the May 11 election, rather than the countywide option Elections Administrator George Matthews supported.
Matthews' proposal would reduce the number of poll sites from 35 to 23. But, because a voter could cast a ballot from any poll site, choosing elected leaders would be more convenient, he said.
Matthews said the essence of the discussion with taxing entities including the city, water districts, college and school district, was that the change is too close to the election.
"Taking that into account and listening to their concerns, it seems the prudent thing to do is to wait this time and consider this possibly at a July meeting of commissioners court," Matthews said. "Then they can decide whether we want to do it for just the November uniform election or both the May and November election dates."
While he said all 35 sites could stay open, after the redistricting in 2010, reducing the poll sites and making them countywide could allow people to vote in the locations with which they are most familiar.
Commissioner Danny Garcia, who represented the court during an informal meeting Thursday at the elections office, said the poll site issue could have been approved if it were more clear.
"The point I was trying to make is, if it's a primary, there isn't a legislative order to allow countywide election boxes," Garcia said.
This was an issue others on the court said would cause confusion among voters. Also, the reduction in boxes was a major concern.
"I haven't talked to a single person who wants to cut boxes," Garcia said.
He said cutting a box with low turnout can have major consequences on area elections.
"Three votes determined the leadership in the city council race" between Emett Alvarez and Denise Rangel, he said.
Matthews said the county should know by July whether Texas' lawmakers will approve countywide poll centers for the primary election.
"If the county went to countywide polling places (for general elections) and the primaries could not, we would still start consolidating ... not quite as drastic as everyone has to vote at one polling place," Matthews said.
While Commissioner Gary Burns said he wanted to implement the change for the May election to "get a trial run," others on the court disagreed.
Burns asked if all the polling sites are open because the change was not approved, why not open them to countywide voting?
However, Commissioner Kevin Janak said any changes the county makes would lead to voter confusion.
The secretary of state only selects 10 counties annually to participate: six counties with a population of 100,000 or more and four counties with a population of less than 100,000.
To date, there have been six election cycles using the countywide method.
According to a 2013 report the secretary of state presented to the state Legislature, countywide polling places' effects on voter turnout are currently difficult to gauge.
However, observational evidence from the participating counties along with 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 report states.
The report's first recommendation is that countywide poll centers be opened to primary elections.
According to that report, the challenges with countywide polling places appear to predominate in larger counties with higher turnouts.
If the countywide polling place is insufficiently staffed and equipped, delays can occur.
Galveston County noted in its report that this may be a sign some counties need to ramp up their investment in equipment.
However, with reductions in polling places and the voting machines congregated at a countywide polling place, some 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.
Lubbock County was the first in Texas to seek and receive approval to use countywide poll centers and has used them since 2006.
Its November 2012 election had a 27.8 percent turnout compared to the 23.9 percent turnout in the November 2008 election. The county also cut poll sites from 69 to 33.