This deserves serious consideration.
Widespread problems with Harris County elections likely would be relieved if officials reduced the number of polling locations in favor of fewer sites that operate more efficiently, a Rice University researcher and some recent reports say.
“We do just fine with early voting,” said Robert Stein, a political scientist and fellow at the school’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. “We have all kinds of locations over 12 days and that count goes fine. Then, at the end of election night you have 900 people standing in line.”
That line, like plenty of others, is made up of frustrated voters who, despite Harris County offering 782 polling locations with roughly 11,000 voting machines, encounter confusion and delays as poll workers troubleshoot problems, wait for instructions or replacement equipment from election officials.
County Election Administrator Clifford Tatum, the county’s fifth person to oversee elections since 2018, said Wednesday that officials would assess and investigate problems with this week’s mid-term election once they have completed the final tally and verified election results.
“We will look at every polling location,” Tatum said.
Tuesday’s election and others in recent years indicate the way to a smoother day is to decrease the number of places where problems can occur by reducing where people can cast a vote, Stein said.
Stein, who has studied local elections for more than 40 years and spent the past decade examining turnout and voter habits, said numerous analyses have shown voters likely can be better served with larger, more efficiently operated polling locations strategic to where they can conveniently vote.
The benefit would be two-fold, Stein said.
First, poll workers could be better distributed on Election Day so issues can be triaged as they arise. Currently, a polling location with six workers can grind to a halt if a single machine goes down and all the workers are huddling to handle the problem. Larger facilities can operate more smoothly because some election officials can focus on specific issues, such as technology, while less tech-savvy poll workers maintain the operations and check voters in. Reducing locations also means polling sites would have more machines at their disposal.
All of those changes would allow better use of “queuing theory,” the same research stores use to sell people more items with fewer workers. Better management of lines has been shown to improve not only the time voters spend in line, but their confidence in elections and likelihood to vote, according to a study jointly managed by Caltech and MIT.
Fewer polling places also would reduce the number of voting machines that need to be brought to a central counting location, verified, certified and uploaded, which should speed up the counting process.
Stein said more study is needed to calculate exactly how many polling locations are the correct amount for Harris County, and where they should be located, but it is likely a more efficient election could be conducted with hundreds of fewer sites.
Harris County already had trimmed the number of polling places this year, mostly because of a new state law requiring all votes be backed up with a paper ballot, that meant the county had to purchase and train scores of election volunteers on new machines. In 2020, the last major election — held during the COVID-19 pandemic — election officials offered 122 locations for the 12 days of early voting and 807 on Election Day.
The challenge to reducing polling locations in the Houston area, however, is politics of the most local level. Opposition to reducing the number of polling stations, historically, has been widespread because of fears it would disenfranchise low-income Black and Latino voters by removing neighborhood-centric sites and force suburban — often Republican — voters to drive farther to cast a ballot.
Most voters, however, do not vote in their neighborhood precincts, studies and the recent election show. Of the 1.1 million ballots cast in Harris County this cycle, nearly 700,000 were completed at 99 locations during early voting. Another 61,000 ballots were submitted by mail.
That leaves the approximately 350,000 people who voted Tuesday, many of whom crowded into major locations such as the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center on Gray Street, Trini Mendenhall Community Center and Jersey Village Municipal Government Center, all of which acted as early voting and Election Day sites.
Election officials could not produce a detailed list of where people voted Tuesday, citing the work they doing to finalize the election, but early voting indicates — as Stein said research also suggests — people vote where it is convenient for them but not necessarily closest.
Stein compared election locations to Starbucks, where someone’s habits may change but center on the most convenient choice. It may not be the closest one, he said, but it is the one on their way to work or while running errands.
“I can go back in time and model it,” Stein said. “You have got to know exactly where every voter is going to vote and you can get close with it. Is it perfect? No, but you can get pretty close.”
Additionally, local officials can leverage other options to easily connect people with polls. Metropolitan Transit Authority already offers free rides to polls through early voting and on Election Day, for example.
Early voting indicates voters already are finding their way to the most convenient places. Despite the 99 early voting locations being chosen to cover most of the county, the locations visited by the most voters are those located in major hubs for shopping or business, or where high concentrations of people pass by on their daily commutes. As a result, 50 of the locations handled 537,471 of the voters, while the other 49 saw 155,007 voters.
I feel like we had a version of this debate when the idea of voting centers was first proposed for Harris County. People at the time were very attached to the idea of voting in their neighborhood, and that’s understandable. Black and Hispanic communities have fought for generations for access to the ballot box, and being able to vote in their neighborhoods was both a symbol of their victory and an activity that had a lot of meaning. The fear that they would not be able to do that and would have to go someplace unfamiliar, possibly unwelcoming, and possibly inaccessible to some, was legitimate and a real reason to be wary if not opposed to the concept.
I believe that is different now, mostly because early voting is so popular and because voting at any location on Election Day is no longer new and unknown. The reason we have nearly as many Election Day locations where anyone can cast a vote as we did precinct locations where you could only vote at the one where you lived is basically the compromise that allowed for this hybrid version of voting centers to be initiated. The idea was always to consolidate voting locations on Election Day. It really does make sense and should eliminate a lot of the issues that caused delays, as Stein lays out in the story. And now that people are much more acclimated to the idea of voting wherever on Election Day, not to mention the fact that far fewer people wait until Election Day to vote, I would think moving towards that original vision, coupled with a plan and a promise to make both the voting experience and the vote-counting experience smoother and simpler and less time-consuming, ought to work. It’s absolutely worth a try. Campos and Stace have more.