Victoria election official proposes nixing precinct polls

Jan. 29, 2013 at 10 p.m.
Updated Jan. 29, 2013 at 7:30 p.m.

A plan heralded to improve voter access in Victoria County could disenfranchise minority voters if certain polling precincts close for the May 11 election, critics say.

Victoria County Elections Administrator George Matthews hosted a public hearing Tuesday evening at the Dr. Pattie Dodson Public Health Center to get community comments on the "Vote Center" plan, which would do away with precinct-specific polling sites.

In the process, 12 county commissioner precinct polling sites would close, leaving 23 of the 35 sites, Matthews said. Additionally, city council polling precincts would be reduced to 14 from 21.

Councilman Emett Alvarez objected to the reduction.

"I'm not totally comfortable with this," Alvarez said. "I would like to see all 35 boxes stay and they (voters) can vote wherever."

The plan would drop Precinct 3 at Trinity Episcopal, Precinct 7 at O'Connor and Precinct 35 at FW Gross, among others.

"O'Connor is a high-performing box, as is Trinity Episcopal," Alvarez said.

He pointed out that Gross and Patti Welder have high minority turnout at their sites.

"They walk to those voting places, you won't get them to drive a mile to vote somewhere else," he said.

Matthews said his decision to close certain boxes was arbitrary, based on distance between boxes and ease of conducting an election rather than turnout.

After Alvarez' comments, he offered reopening Precinct 7 at O'Connor and closing Precinct 6 at Family Worship.

"This is not set in stone," Matthews said.

The plan does not change any election precinct boundary, but rather allows a voter to cast his or her ballot at any "vote center" across the county.

Matthews said very few Texas counties have reduced their cost from changing to the countywide centers, but the idea is to make voting easier.

"Certainly our goal is to make it as easy as possible," he said. "There haven't been enough elections yet to be able to tell. You try to sell the idea that it's going to cost less money, but nobody has broken even yet."

Election Judge Nancy Baass said she was concerned she would be fired from her position with Precinct 3, but was assured she could work in other areas.

She has been a judge since 2004, and started as an elections clerk in the early 1990s.

While she worried about the impact the changes would have on her voters, she said, "I trust George's judgment."

Only 10 counties will be approved this year to change to the "vote center" style elections.

The next step is for county commissioners to vote on the plan Feb. 4. From there, the application must be approved by the secretary of state and then the department of justice.

Matthews said he wants the plan in place by May so people can get used to it before the next presidential election in 2016.

Currently, if the plan is approved, primary and runoff elections would not be conducted under the "vote center" method.

Commissioner Danny Garcia said he was glad to see O'Connor back in the plan.

"That's fair," he said. "It's not set in stone yet. Everybody's not going to be happy unless we keep all 35 boxes open."

Because of staffing issues, equipment needs and budget constraints, Matthews said keeping all 35 open under this plan is not possible.

Councilman Tom Halepaska said he supports the effort to make voting more convenient.

"Apathy is your main enemy," he said.



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