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Now we talk about vote centers

Good.

New Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman on Tuesday [proposed] to Commissioners Court a non-precinct based countywide polling system, where voters can cast ballots at the locations most convenient to them.

“Life gets in the way; you’ve got to pick up the kids, or go to another job,” Trautman said at her office Monday. “But if people actually had a choice of when and where to vote, I think you would see a big difference in turnout.”

Fifty-two Texas counties, including neighboring Fort Bend and Brazoria, have used voting centers.

In last November’s mid-term election, Harris County residents could vote at any of 46 county locations during the two-week early voting period. They had to cast ballots at their assigned precincts on Election Day, when the county operates more than 700 polling sites.

It is unclear how many voting centers would be needed, which could vary depending on what is on the ballot and projected turnout. Trautman said she would begin by using the county’s 46 early voting locations as Election Day voting centers, in addition to its precinct polling sites. Her office, she said, would use the resulting turnout data to make future decisions about the number of centers needed.

During her campaign, Trautman pitched voting centers as a way to increase turnout by 2 to 5 percent. She said voters are more likely to participate when they can cast ballots on Election Day near their work or school, which may be outside their precincts.

The idea first came up in Harris County back in 2015. Fort Bend adopted them that same year, as did Galveston, while Travis has used them since 2011.

The new clerk said she has studied Travis County’s voting centers model, which debuted in 2011, and hired away Michael Winn, that county’s elections director. Winn said voters needed several cycles to get used to the new system, which he said eventually boosted turnout 10 to 12 percent.

“Voters really enjoyed the fact that during lunchtime or after work, in that crunch time before polls close … vote centers make it so they can go without worry to a place within their proximity,” Winn said.

Through studying turnout patterns and consulting with neighborhood leaders, Winn said Travis County was able to close about 20 percent of its traditional polling places without hampering turnout.

Trautman said she is open to consolidating Harris County polling sites, but only after consulting with communities. She acknowledged the role polling places play in the civic fabric of neighborhoods — especially where residents once had been denied suffrage — and said she would leave open sites that hold such significance.

The Harris County Democratic Party endorsed the proposal, and a spokeswoman said County Judge Lina Hidalgo supports the idea. A spokesman for the county Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.

We may get a pilot as early as this May – as Trautman notes, it makes far more sense to test this out in a lower-turnout election, rather than debut it during a Presidential race. Commissioners Court has approved the idea. so we can move ahead with it. I look forward to the discussion and planning process, and especially to the final product.

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5 Comments

  1. Marc says:

    Voting centers have been discussed in Montgomery County as well since at least 2014, and has the support of the MCDP and some of the establishment Republicans. But the Tea Party activists have shot the idea down, primarily because of the upfront costs.

    And given that Tea Party supported County Judge Mark Keough is in charge, I don’t anticipate the idea will get off of the ground in the near future, either.

  2. Valerie says:

    When I moved from Harris County to Brazoria County a few years ago and learned I could vote anywhere I wanted, it was awesome. It is extremely nice to be able to just vote at whatever location happens to be the closest to whatever work/errands/etc. I’m doing that day. I know that Harris County voting is much more complicated, but this will be a great thing for the voters if they can get it to work.

  3. Jules says:

    It’s a great idea. Should work, since we already do it with early voting.

  4. voter_worker says:

    Congratulations to all for setting this in motion. This conversion will have the effect of making the 5000-registered voter maximum for voting precincts redundant and perhaps relieve the County from its obligation to perform the cumbersome process of whittling down oversized voting precincts every two years.

  5. Bill Daniels says:

    Marc,

    The way to make the implementation of this idea cost neutral is to close some polling locations. Fewer locations means less spending, so money is freed up to implement a new ‘vote anywhere’ system. I’m guessing that will have some pushback.

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