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The people responded to the call for poll workers

In Harris County, bigtime.

Muhammed Nasrullah was ready to call it quits. After working as an election judge in every Harris County contest since 2004, the COVID-19 pandemic discouraged the 67-year-old retired mechanical engineer from signing up again.

He is in a high-risk age group, and he knew friends who had contracted the virus. Then he began to read news stories about a nationwide shortage of poll workers during the pandemic. And he was worried that delays in the U.S. Postal Service have undermined the public’s trust in mail ballots.

In such a consequential election Nov. 3, with record turnout expected in Harris County, Nasrullah decided he would serve again.

“I convinced myself that the election is so important that I’m willing to take the risk,” he said. “I feel like I’m doing my civic duty, and it’s a good feeling.”

He is one of 11,000 poll workers Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins hopes to recruit this year, twice as many as in 2016. Hollins’ ambitious $27.2 million election plan includes nearly tripling the number of early voting sites and an 8 percent increase in poll locations on Election Day. He needs an army of poll workers to staff them.

The clerk’s office in August launched an aggressive social media campaign to recruit workers, and Hollins recorded a commercial.

By this week, 29,000 applications had arrived.

Rachelle Obakozuwa, polling locations and recruitment manager for the clerk’s office, attributed part of the increased interest to many residents believing the November presidential election is especially important.

“And for another, people really need work because of COVID and a lot of layoffs,” Obakozuwa said. “We’re seeing both equally.”

Pay was also a factor – poll workers are receiving $17 per hour for their work, nearly double the $9 per hour they got in 2016. Decent pay for meaningful work, who knew that would be attractive to so many? They – and we – can thank Diane Trautman for upping their pay.

Fuentes is one of more than 100 student clerks Harris County recruited from Houston-area schools. As they often are more tech-savvy than older workers, Obakozuwa said one of the students’ tasks will be to update the clerk’s wait time app for polling places.

That task will be crucial to ensuring a smooth experience for residents, as the clerk’s office estimates each voter will spend far longer in the booth this year because of the elimination of straight-ticket voting. The hours-long lines to vote at some locations in the March primary election were partly blamed on a failure of poll workers to update the app, leading voters to visit sites that already were crowded.

Under the Texas Election Code, counties do not hire most poll workers directly. Rather, county clerks recruit and train poll workers, who are selected by the Democratic and Republican election judges at each polling site.

The loss of straight ticket voting may turn out not to be a concern, but until the Fifth Circuit speaks, it’s too soon to say. Be that as it may, my first thought when I saw this story was “Gosh, I sure hope other counties are this successful at getting poll workers”. But other counties may not be paying as well, or may not be able to pay as well. That’s an inequity situation if so, because it shouldn’t be the case that voting is easier and more accessible in one place due to financial constraints. This is another thing that could be addressed by the Legislature, by mandating a minimum level of pay and a minimum number of poll workers per location and locations per county, and allocating the money to cover costs above a certain level for each county so they can comply. I’m being overly simplistic here, but the point I’m making is that the state could be doing what Harris County has done this year, which is spend the money necessary to improve access to voting. I think we all know what will be required for that to happen. I’m just saying it’s something we can work to make happen.

County’s plan to make in person voting safer is having an effect

So says this poll.

Voters with the highest risk of suffering COVID-19’s worst effects say they’re more likely to vote early this November, according to a Rice University study.

A poll of nearly 6,000 Harris County voters found roughly 80% said they will vote in the presidential election regardless of the threat from COVID-19. That jumped to 90% among African Americans, according to Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, who authored the study.

“Among African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, there’s a greater fear of COVID-19 – for obvious reasons, they have suffered more,” Stein said. “Yet, they were more likely to vote given what the county clerk has been doing.”

Stein said that’s largely the results of steps Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins took to make voting safer during the July primary runoff – such as providing PPE for poll workers, as well as hand sanitizer and finger coverings for voters.

The study, however, found substantial confusion among voters about how to cast a mail-in ballot – with more than a third wrongly believing they could hand in a mail-in ballot at an in-person polling location.

Stein said that confusion is in no small part because of the legal wrangling over voting by mail. Texas election law allows registered voters to request a mail-in ballot if they meet one of four conditions: if they are older than 65, if they are disabled, if they will be out of their home county during voting, or if they are in jail but otherwise eligible to vote.

The poll data is embedded in the story, so click over to see. In short, if you go all in on expanding voting access, people will respond positively. Funny how that works. I’m not too worried about the confusion over returning mail ballots – there will be a number of dropoff locations as it is, and I expect there will be plenty of messaging over how to return them. The bottom line is, this is how it should be done. Kudos to County Clerk Chris Hollins, County Judge Lina Hidalgo, and County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia for making it happen.

One lawsuit about voting locations thrown out

This was filed just a couple of months ago.

Continuing to fend off attempts to alter its voting processes, Texas has convinced a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit that sought sweeping changes to the state’s rules for in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. District Judge Jason Pulliam dismissed a legal challenge Monday from Mi Familia Vota, the Texas NAACP and two Texas voters who claimed the state’s current polling place procedures — including rules for early voting, the likelihood of long lines and Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to not require voters to wear masks — would place an unconstitutional burden on voters while the novel coronavirus remains in circulation.

In his order, Pulliam noted that the requests were not unreasonable and could “easily be implemented to ensure all citizens in the State of Texas feel safe and are provided the opportunity to cast their vote in the 2020 election.” But he ultimately decided the court lacked jurisdiction to order the changes requested — an authority, he wrote, left to the state.

“This Court is cognizant of the urgency of Plaintiffs’ concerns and does respect the importance of protecting all citizens’ right to vote,” Pulliam wrote. “Within its authority to do so, this Court firmly resolves to prevent any measure designed or disguised to deter this most important fundamental civil right. At the same time, the Court equally respects and must adhere to the Constitution’s distribution and separation of power.”

The long list of changes the plaintiffs sought included a month of early voting, an across-the-board mask mandate for anyone at a polling place, the opening of additional polling places, a prohibition on the closure of polling places scheduled to be open on Election Day and a suspension of rules that limit who can vote curbside without entering a polling place. Other requested changes were more ambiguous, such as asking the court to order that all polling places be sufficiently staffed to keep wait times to less than 20 minutes. The lawsuit named Abbott and Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs as defendants, but the suit targeted some decisions that are ultimately up to local officials.

The plaintiffs argued the changes were needed because the burdens brought on by an election during a pandemic would be particularly high for Black and Latino voters whose communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus.

See here for the background. As noted in the story, there is now a third week of early voting, and at least the larger counties like Harris have been making plans to greatly expand the number of in-person voting locations, both for early voting and Election Day, so the plaintiffs didn’t walk away with nothing. Harris County will also have expanded curbside voting; I don’t know offhand what other counties are doing. That’s not the same as a statewide mandate, but it will be good for the voters who can experience it. The mask mandate seems like the most obvious and straightforward thing to me, and anyone who would argue that being forced to wear a mask in order to vote is an unconstitutional violation of their rights will need to very carefully explain to me why that’s a greater obstacle than our state’s voter ID law. I would have liked to see this survive the motion to dismiss, but at least we are all clear about what the to-do list for expanding voting rights in the Legislature is. Reform Austin has more.

HISD may do remote learning on Election Day

Makes sense to me.

Houston ISD’s administration wants to hold online-only classes on Election Day this November, citing safety concerns at more than 100 campuses that are expected to be used as polling locations.

“While it is not unusual for our school sites to be used as polling locations, the COVID-19 pandemic makes the safety of our students and staff more challenging when significant numbers of voters would be entering the schools throughout the day,” district officials wrote in documents provided to the school board.

HISD trustees are expected to vote Sept. 10 on the request.

[…]

It is not immediately clear whether the Texas Education Agency will penalize HISD for not offering in-person classes on Election Day, which is Nov. 3.

Under current TEA guidelines, public school districts can keep campuses closed up to eight weeks at the outset of the school year, though they must start to offer some in-person classes after the fourth week. Election Day falls on HISD’s ninth week of classes.

Districts that violate TEA guidelines risk losing state funding. However, TEA officials have said they plan to remain flexible amid the pandemic on safety matters.

As we know there will be 808 voting locations in Harris County on Election Day, which is nearly one per precinct. Schools have always been used as polling places – the elementary (Travis) and middle (Hogg) schools in my neighborhood are voting locations, as are nearby Crockett and Field elementaries. It is completely sensible to keep the kids home on a day when these schools will be full of strangers, in this time of pandemic. I would very much hope that the TEA will see it that way, but given some of the desperate shenanigans that are being pulled right now, I will need to hear it from them before I believe it. I hope HISD has been checking in with the TEA on this, and I hope the trustees are fully informed on this when they vote. We’ll find out next week.

You’ll be able to vote at Toyota Center this fall

Nice.

Toyota Center will serve as a voting center for the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election, the Rockets and the Harris County Clerk office announced on Thursday.

Toyota Center will be open to any registered voter in Harris County from Oct. 13 to 30 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for early voting and on Election Day, Nov. 3, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“On behalf of the Houston Rockets, and Toyota Center, we are honored to help serve our community by providing a safe and convenient location for Harris County voters for the upcoming Presidential election,” Doug Hall, General Manager & Senior Vice President of Toyota Center said. “Voting is an extremely important right which many have fought hard for throughout the years and we want to thank the Harris County Clerk office for allowing the Rockets and Toyota Center to offer support.”

The Rockets and Houston First will provide free parking at Toyota Center throughout the voting period.

The Rockets have also partnered with I am a voter. (iamavoter.com), a nonpartisan movement that works to enhance awareness and participation in the voting process. Fans may text ROCKETS to 26797 to confirm their voter registration status.

“Our elections this November will be historic – not only because we are electing the President of the United States, but also because we must meet the challenge as a community to ensure that every Harris County voter can cast their vote safely,” Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said. “I’m thrilled that Toyota Center, home to our beloved Houston Rockets, will be a voting center during the Early Voting Period and on Election Day.”

Here’s the County Clerk’s statement about this. Toyota Center joins NRG Arena and many other places. Unlike the other innovations being put forth for this year, this one may not be repeatable, as Toyota Center (and NRG Arena) are generally quite busy with multiple events that draw large crowds. Then again, one could argue that’s exactly the kind of place where you’d want to put a voting center, for maximal convenience. If there’s a practical way to do it in the future, then by all means let’s do so.

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman to resign

This was unexpected, to say the least.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman will resign May 31 due to health concerns, she said Saturday afternoon.

Trautman, 70, steps down just 16 months into her first term. She defeated incumbent clerk Stan Stanart in 2018.

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, my age, and underlying health issues, I do not feel I can safely continue to carry out my duties,” Trautman said in a statement. She declined to answer questions.

Commissioners Court will appoint an interim clerk to serve until November, when a new clerk is elected. The Democratic and Republican parties will each put forth a nominee.

During her brief tenure, Trautman’s signature success was the implementation of county voting centers, which for the first time allowed residents to visit any polling place on Election Day. County Judge Lina Hidalgo praised that effort and Trautman’s dedication to the job.

“Dr. Trautman embodies the spirit of the community she has served,” Hidalgo said in a statement. “In her brief time as County Clerk, Dr. Trautman has fought to make it easier for citizens to participate in elections and make their voices heard.”

You can see a copy of her press release, which hit my mailbox at 6 PM last night, here. I’m still a little stunned, but the more I think about it the more I wonder if she will be just the first in line to step down over health and safety concerns. Elected officials tend to be older, and we have seen multiple stories of them having come down with COVID-19. A quick google search turned up three examples of state representatives who have died as a result of the disease. In that regard, it’s honestly a little surprising we haven’t seen more elected officials do the same.

As her resignation is official on May 31, I assume there will be some kind of application process for the interim Clerk. Whoever that is will have to continue the preparations for more mail ballots as well as making in-person voting as safe as possible, both for the voters and the poll workers. No pressure, right? I presume the nominee to replace her on the November ballot will be picked by the precinct chairs, as we did with Commissioner Ellis and the three judges in 2016. That will add a level of excitement to the next CEC meeting, which is already going to be a big deal since the March one was postponed. I’m sure I’ll begin hearing from hopefuls in short order. I do not envy whoever it is at the HCDP who will be tasked with organizing this meeting, which I’m going to guess will have to be done remotely, unless we all somehow feel confident about packing several hundred mostly older folks into the IBEW hall one day next month. This is going to be all kinds of fun. We’ll get it done one way or another. In the meantime, my thanks to Diane Trautman for her service, and my best wishes for a healthy post-County Clerk life.

County to review countywide voting centers

Let’s make this work better.

Diane Trautman

Commissioners Court has formed a working group to review Harris County’s shift to voting centers and examine what effect it had on hours-long lines at the polls on Primary Day, which Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis called unacceptable.

During an at-times contentious discussion with County Clerk Diane Trautman during Tuesday’s Commissioners Court session, Ellis questioned whether she had become too focused on county-wide voting centers, her signature initiative since taking office last year.

Ellis noted that the March primary was the second election overseen by Trautman that had problems. In last November’s municipal elections, the county clerk did not post full voting results for nearly 12 hours. Trautman blamed the delay on a last-minute directive from the secretary of state that forced Harris County to change its vote counting method; that directive, however, came out weeks before Election Day.

“I’d hate for a third one; because at some point, the discussion will have to be held, are voting centers worth it if you have all these unintended consequences?” Ellis said.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was surprised to learn, just days before the primary, that nearly two-thirds of polling sites would be in Republican commissioner precincts. She said that was “functionally discriminating” against Democratic voters, who outnumbered Republicans 2 to 1 on Election Day.

Trautman countered that the voting sites were set by an agreement between the Democratic and Republican parties.

Hidalgo was unsatisfied with that response. She said if Trautman had been more forthcoming about potential voting problems, and asked for more resources from the county, Commissioners Court would have tried to accommodate.

“I don’t know what I don’t know,” Hidalgo said. “I’ve been nothing but supportive of your guys’ effort to expand access to the vote.”

More than 50 counties in Texas use voting centers, including Bexar, Travis, Dallas and Tarrant, according to the secretary of state. November will be the first general election in Harris County to use the system, when more than 1 million voters are expected to cast ballots.

Ellis said he may not have supported the creation of voting centers had Trautman explained how the switch could affect primary elections.

Trautman called the election “a very sad night” for voters and pledged to do better. The working group formed this week will include a representative from each court member’s office, as well as county clerk staff.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’d like to see a broader group involved in that working group, but if they solicit public input I’ll be satisfied with that. People like the voting centers, and there’s nothing here that shouldn’t be fixable, but we need to really understand what happened and then do what it takes to deal with it. It’s not rocket science but it is a commitment. And Judge Hidalgo is right, better communication from the Clerk’s office is going to be a vital part of this effort. Let’s get this going so we can all feel confident about November.

We need to talk about those lines

I wish we could talk about something else, but we have to do this.

Hervis Rogers, the hero we don’t deserve

Dozens of Democratic voters were still waiting to cast ballots at midnight in Houston, turning Super Tuesday into a painful slog for some citizens amid questions about how the County Clerk’s office had allocated its voting machines across the county.

Janet Gonzalez left work early and at 5:30 p.m. checked a website the clerk’s office runs to show wait times at polling places. It seemed Texas Southern University had a short wait, but when she arrived she found a massive line. She waited an hour outside and three more inside before she finally cast her ballot.

Officials with the clerk’s office acknowledged the accuracy of the wait-times website is reliant on election workers manually updating the status of their polling places.

Some people in line gave up and walked away, Gonzalez said. Others briefly sought refuge on a scattering of chairs before giving them up to others as the line inched forward.

[…]

Democratic County Clerk Diane Trautman and her staff said each of the county’s 401 polling places started with between 16 and 48 machines, depending on anticipated turnout, but at each location the machines were divided equally between the Democrat and Republican primaries, regardless of whether the location heavily favored one party or the other.

“If we had given one five and one 10, and that other one had a line, they would say, ‘You slighted us,’” Trautman said late Tuesday. “So we wanted to be fair and equal and start at the same amount. Through the day, we have been sending out additional machines to the Democratic judges to the extent that we ran out.”

During Election Day the clerk’s office dispatched 68 extra voting machines to Democratic polls, including 14 to TSU, in response to election judges’ requests. Trautman added that some of the machines assigned to TSU to start the day had to be replaced after malfunctioning.

Trautman said a joint primary — which would have allowed both parties’ ballots to be loaded on each voting machine, rather than separating the equipment by party — would have reduced the lines, but the GOP rejected the idea.

[…]

County Democratic Party chair Lillie Schechter said her staff did not grasp until Tuesday that when Trautman spoke of allocating the machines “equitably” she meant dividing them equally at each polling site, rather than giving each party the same number of machines but concentrating most of them in areas known to be strongholds of each party.

“We’re thrilled that turnout has been so high today and that’s been super exciting, but I think the story with the voting machines goes a step farther back than just how the voting machines are allocated,” she said. “The machines are part of the problem but not the whole problem.”

In order to preserve citizens’ ability to vote at any polling place on Election Day – a new policy under Trautman, and one GOP officials have opposed – Schechter said the parties needed to agree on shared polling locations. That gave Republicans more power in the negotiation, she said, and resulted in more than 60 percent of Tuesday’s polling sites being located in Republican-held county commissioner precincts, with less than 40 percent in commissioner precincts held by Democrats.

It’s kind of amazing that more people didn’t just give up and walk away after hours of waiting on line. You think you’re committed to American ideals and democracy, tell that to Hervis Rogers and the other people who waited as long as they did to exercise their right to vote. Every last one of them deserves our thanks, and a hell of a lot better from the experience next time.

This story expands a bit on that last paragraph above.

The clerk’s office dispatched additional machines to some poll sites, located in heavily black and Hispanic neighborhoods including Third Ward, Acres Homes and Gulfgate. They provided only partial relief.

At Texas Southern University, where just 48 Republicans voted early, the final Democratic voter cast his ballot after 1 a.m. after waiting in line for more than six hours.

Democratic election workers at a Sunnyside voting center reported functioning machines were broken in a successful ruse to get the clerk’s office to send more, a spokeswoman for Trautman said.

The sheer expanse of Harris County’s 1,777 square miles and most-in-Texas 2.3 million registered voters long has posed problems for county clerks in primary and general elections. When Democratic precincts in past elections had extremely long lines, some in the party blamed the Republican county clerk.

Problems persisted in Tuesday’s primary, however, even though Democrats have controlled every countywide post since last year.

Yes, and many people noticed, though a lot of blame still accrued to Republicans thanks to their long and dedicated record of vote suppression. But we don’t have Stan Stanart to kick around any more, and the spotlight is on us to fix this, not just for next time but on a more permanent basis.

I mean, I can accept that the Harris County GOP’s refusal to go along with a joint primary and the certainty that they’d pitch a fit if Dems got more voting machines than they did even though it was a virtual certainty that Dems would be the larger part of the Tuesday electorate was a problem. But we elected Diane Trautman to solve problems like that, and on Tuesday she didn’t. The onus is squarely on her to be completely transparent about what happened and why it happened, and to come up with a plan to ensure it never happens again. That doesn’t mean just brainstorming with her staff. That means concrete action involving all of the stakeholders – people from the community, election law experts, Commissioner Ellis and Garcia’s offices, County Attorney Vince Ryan and 2020 nominee Christian Menefee, grassroots organizations like TOP and the Texas Civil Rights Project and whoever else, and the HCDP since they have as big a stake in this as anyone. Convene a commission, get everyone’s input on what they saw and what they experienced and what they know and what they need, and come up with a plan for action.

Among other things, that means having much better communications, both before the election so people have a better idea of what polling places are open and what ones aren’t – yes, this is on the website, but clearly more than that needs to be done – and on Election Day, when rapid response may be needed to deal with unexpected problems. Why weren’t there more voting machines available on Tuesday, and why wasn’t there a way to get them to the places with the longest lines in a timely manner? Let the Republicans whine about that while it’s happening, at that point no one would care. Stuff happens, and anyone can guess wrong about what Election Day turnout might look like. But once that has happened, don’t just sit there, DO SOMETHING about it. It really shouldn’t have to take election clerks pretending that machines had malfunctioned to get some relief.

Also, as useful as the voting centers concept is, we need to recognize that for folks with mobility issues, having places they can walk to really makes a difference. Add Metro and transit advocacy folks like LINK Houston to that list of commission attendees, because the mobility of the people in a given neighborhood needs to be weighed into decisions about which Election Day sites are open and which are consolidated in the same way that relative turnout is. If a significant segment of a given population simply can’t drive to another neighborhood to vote, then all the voting centers in the world don’t matter.

I get that in November we’ll have all locations open, and there won’t be any squabble over who gets which voting machines. That will help. But in November, no matter how heavy early voting will be, we’re going to get a lot more people going to the polls on Election Day than the 260K or so that turned out this Tuesday. Voter registration is up, turnout is up, and we need to be much better prepared for it. Diane Trautman, please please please treat this like the emergency that it is. And Rodney Ellis, Adrian Garcia, and Lina Hidalgo, if that means throwing some money at the problem, then by God do that. We didn’t elect you all to have the same old problems with voting that we had before. The world is watching, and we’ve already made a lousy first impression. If that doesn’t hurt your pride and make you burn to fix it, I don’t know what would.

(My thanks to nonsequiteuse and Melissa Noriega for some of the ideas in this post. I only borrow from the best.)

UPDATE: Naturally, after I finished drafting this piece, out comes this deeper dive from the Trib. Let me just highlight a bit of it:

Months before, the Democratic and Republican county parties had been unable to agree to hold a joint primary, which would have allowed voters to share machines preloaded with ballots for both parties.

The Harris County Democratic Party had agreed to the setup, but the Harris County GOP refused, citing in part the long lines Republican voters would have to wait through amid increased turnout for the pitched Democratic presidential primary.

“We wanted them to do a joint primary where you would just have one line and voters could use all the machines, but they couldn’t agree on that,” said Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who was elected to her post in 2018.

Without a resolution, Trautman chose to allocate an equal number of machines for both primaries at each polling site “because we didn’t want to slight anyone,” particularly as Harris moved to countywide voting to free voters from precinct-specific voting. But the move essentially halved the number of voting machines available to Democratic voters on a busy election day. That meant Republican voting quickly wrapped up across the county while Democratic lines made for extra hours of voting at multiple polling places.

In a Wednesday press conference, Paul Simpson, the chair of the Harris County GOP, reiterated that the party was adamantly opposed to joint primaries and sought to preempt any blame for long Democratic lines. To Simpson, Trautman misfired by pursuing a 50/50 split of voting machines across the board instead of using past turnout data to adjust allocations, and he pointed to the party’s recommendation to give Republicans only four machines at Texas Southern University.

“The county clerk refused and failed to follow our suggestion to avoid the lines that we predicted last summer were going to happen,” Simpson said.

(Previous voting patterns weren’t available for Texas Southern University, which was only added as polling place under Trautman.)

But Lillie Schechter, the chairwoman of the Harris County Democratic Party, said the excessive wait times Democrats faced Tuesday were part of a broader electoral divide in a county that has turned reliably blue in recent years. That change in power has come with voting initiatives that local Republicans have not warmed up to, including a move to countywide voting that allows voters to cast ballots at any polling place in the county on election day.

To keep countywide voting for the primary election, the political parties needed to agree on the distribution of shared polling places. But the map the GOP pushed for on Super Tuesday established more voting centers in the two county commissioner precincts represented by Republicans, Schechter said.

“If you look at the story to say let’s blame the county clerk’s office, you’re missing the big picture here,” Schechter said.

In the aftermath of the wait time debacle, Trautman acknowledged that Democratic voting on Super Tuesday was bogged down by both technical and training issues. The county’s voting machines — the oldest in use among the state’s biggest counties — went down at different points in the night. Election workers weren’t always able to make the adjustments to bring them back into order. Both machines and election workers were “stretched to the max” during the late-night voting slog, she said.

At midnight — seven hours after polls closed — voting was again interrupted at the two polling places that were still running, including the Texas Southern University site, when the tablets used to check in voters automatically timed out and had to be rebooted.

Later on Wednesday, Trautman signaled she was assessing what the county needed to fix moving forward — a better method for rerouting voters to nearby voting sites with shorter lines, a wait time reporting system that’s not dependent on busy election workers, pushing for more early voting and, perhaps most notably, purchasing additional equipment for the November election.

“We will work to improve to make things better,” Trautman said.

It’s the right attitude and I’m glad to see it. The Clerk’s office is also in the process of scoping out new voting machines, which can’t come soon enough but which will introduce new challenges, in terms of adapting to the new technology and educating voters on how to use it. All this is a good start, and now I want to see a whole lot of follow-through.

Primary Day voting information

From the inbox:

On Super Tuesday, March 3, eligible voters will be able to cast their ballots at any of the 401 voting centers across the county. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. For the first time in Harris County, there will be both Democratic and Republican polls at all voting sites.

“Although there are a lot of races on the ballot, I encourage everyone to always vote all the way down the ballot.” added Trautman. “Remember, you can bring a sample ballot, notes, or an endorsement card into the voting booth with you.”

Voters can access individual sample ballots for both parties, find polling locations, and use the wait time feature at www.HarrisVotes.com. The wait time feature, allows users to find voting centers and get an idea of what the lines look like. This gives voters the option of choosing a convenient location with little or no wait time.

The Harris County Clerk’s Office also reminds registered voters to make sure they have an acceptable form of identification when they head out to the polls. Click here for list of acceptable ID.

Winners of the primary elections will move on to the general election on Tuesday, November 3. If the primaries end in a runoff, the 2020 Primary Runoff Elections will be held on May 26. The last day to register to vote for the runoffs is April 27, 2020.

Unofficial Election Day results will be posted on www.HarrisVotes.com as they come in on election night. Official results will be posted after the canvass is completed.

You can see the list of polling locations here, and the interactive map is here. Remember that map only shows twenty locations at a time, so enter your address to easily see the locations near you. Any location works for either party. It should be a busy day – like, more votes cast on Tuesday than in the entire 2015 Mayoral race – but the map should give an indication of how busy each location is, so choose accordingly. I will of course be following developments and report it all out beginning on Wednesday. Happy voting!

Runoff Day is today

Hang in there, it’s almost over.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A nearly year-long mayoral election that culminated in a subdued runoff between Tony Buzbee and incumbent Sylvester Turner comes to an end Saturday when voters decide who wins control over City Hall for the next four years.

Buzbee, a millionaire businessman and trial lawyer, has sought out voters of all political stripes by citing his ties to both parties. For months, he has painted Turner as a corrupt career politician who had run the city into the ground, regularly reminding voters he self-funded his own campaign to avoid the appearance that he is beholden to campaign donors.

Turner, a longtime Democratic state legislator who is finishing his first four-year term, has painted a rosy picture of conditions in Houston, arguing that he has overseen an uptick in the police force and laid the groundwork to diversify the city’s economy through tech and start-up businesses. He also has pitched himself as an astute steward of the city’s finances, pointing to his signature feat: a major overhaul of the city’s costly pension systems.

During the runoff, the two candidates have focused on presenting their plans for the next four years, a marked difference from the general election, when they spent millions of dollars attacking each other. Since Nov. 5, when Turner finished about 19 percentage points ahead of Buzbee, the two have not faced off in a debate, with Turner almost ignoring his foe entirely.

“I think the realization was that Mayor Turner got 47 percent of the vote, and so, if he just didn’t make an embarrassing gaffe or make a wrong move, the election was his to win,” said Michael Adams, chairman of Texas Southern University’s political science department.

See here for the background. I’ve gotten multiple robocalls urging me to vote for Turner (and a few to vote for other candidates, like Raj Salhotra), culminating with one I got on Friday from rightwing radio host Sam Malone on behalf of Tony Buzbee. I finally saw a Buzbee ad on TV a couple days ago – it almost made me nostalgic, it had been so long since I had last seen one. In the meantime, Buzbee has been busy flip flopping on HERO again – what are the odds he could tell you right now what his most recent position on it is? All I know is that as of about 7 PM this evening, I can officially no longer give a shit about anything Tony Buzbee says or does.

Polling locations are here. As a reminder, you can vote at any location. My guess is that more than half of the final vote tally has already happened. I’ll have a report in the morning.

County to seek new voting machines

About time.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved County Clerk Diane Trautman’s plan to seek vendor proposals for new voting machines.

The clerk’s office plans to issue a request for proposal for a new voting system this month. An evaluation committee composed of county government officials will vet proposals and recommend a model by August 2020, according to a timeline Trautman provided.

“We did establish a community advisory community and met with them, and we received written and online feedback,” Trautman said. “We also had an election machine vendor fair where the community came out … the next step is to start the RFP process.”

The clerk’s office plans to purchase the new machines by the end of 2020.

After training election judges and staging demonstrations for the public, Trautman plans to debut the devices in the May 2021 elections. Trautman initially had explored the idea of buying new machines in time for the November 2020 general election, which could see a record number of voters because it is a presidential year, but concluded that timeline was not feasible.

Rolling out the machines in a low-turnout election would allow elections officials to more easily address any problems that arise, she said.

[…]

County Judge Lina Hidalgo urged Trautman to look for ways to decrease wait times at polling sites in the 2020 general election. Since the Legislature eliminated straight-ticket voting after the 2018 election, a time-saving method 76 percent of Harris County voters used that November, officials across the state worry future elections would feature long lines to cast ballots.

“I just want to reiterate my commitment to you to support work to make those lines shorter and fast, and anything we need to do for these 2020 elections, given that we still use these old voting machines,” Hidalgo said.

Security, ease of use, and some form of paper receipt should be the top priorities. Look to Travis County for some ideas – as with voting centers, having Michael Winn on staff will surely help with that. Those voting centers are intended to help with the long lines – having extended hours and more locations during early voting helps, too – and maybe we could remind some folks that they have the ability to vote by mail, too. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the vendor proposals.

People liked the voting centers

They’re great, so of course they do.

Diane Trautman

Half of Harris County voters who turned out Nov. 5 cast ballots outside of their home polling places, taking advantage of a new program that lets citizens vote at any Election Day polling place rather than only their assigned precincts.

The move to “voting centers” was a key plank in Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman’s campaign for the office last year, and this month’s election was the first time it was used on a wide scale.

Nearly 17 percent of the county’s 2.3 million registered voters cast ballots earlier this month, far more than the 4 percent turnout last May in a trial run of the voting-center approach, which Trautman’s office calls “Vote Your Way.”

Prior to last May, Harris County residents could cast ballots at any one of dozens of locations during early voting but were required to visit polls in their home precincts on Election Day.

Trautman said the benefits of the change are clear. In November 2018, she said, 2,500 voters showed up at polling places other than their assigned precincts on Election Day and had to cast provisional ballots that likely were not counted.

“This year there was no wrong location,” said Trautman, a Democrat. “One voter replied to us (on social media) and said, ‘I was just out jogging by West Gray and decided to go vote.’ It’s where your day takes you is where you can wind up voting. You see the signs out and you just go in and vote.”

[…]

A Houston Chronicle analysis of voting data shows that 52 percent of Election Day voters cast ballots at a location other than the polling place associated with their home precincts. Setting aside votes from the 265 precincts that had no home polling site cuts that figure to 46 percent.

Among the 747 polling places on Nov. 5 were roughly 50 early-voting locations that Trautman left open on Election Day, assuming voters would prefer familiar sites.

That hunch was right: Of the busiest 35 polling places on Election Day, 28 were early-voting locations. The busiest polling place — the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center in Montrose, which recorded 1,625 votes on Election Day — typically is the busiest location during early voting.

The trend did produce some counterintuitive results: Though voters could cast ballots anywhere, citizens’ preferences for familiarity left some needlessly waiting in line.

Of the 1,800 votes cast after the polls closed at 7 p.m. — the ballots count as long as voters stay in line — 63 percent were cast at early-voting sites, led by West Gray, Trini Mendenhall Community Center in Spring Branch, and Sunnyside Multi-Service Center.

You can see that analysis here. The experience of people preferring some locations even if they have to wait is one that other counties with voting locations share, and as Bob Stein notes later on, they’re fine with it because they’re voting where they want to. That makes sense, because the voting location most convenient to you may be the one near where you work, or on your way home from work, or some other place that is not in your precinct (never mind that not all precinct locations are available in many elections). I can’t emphasize enough how great it is to not have people miss out on having their votes count because they went to the wrong precinct location. It’s weird that we even have to talk about this, because in a world built for convenience and ease of use, we are totally unaccustomed to the idea that voting should be easy and convenient. Well, now it is in Harris County. That’s pretty damn awesome.

So what happened with the election returns?

The County Clerk puts the blame on the Secretary of State.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman said a last-minute directive from the secretary of state caused significant delays in reporting election results on Tuesday evening.

Trautman said an Oct. 23 election advisory, issued after early voting had begun, required the county to change its counting process. The clerk’s office had originally planned to tally results at 10 sites spread across Harris County, and report them to a central headquarters via a secure intranet connection.

The state advisory, Trautman said, forced the county to abandon that plan and instead count results from each of the 757 voting centers at the clerk’s downtown Houston office.

“Our office is as frustrated as everyone else because of the state’s decision,” Trautman said in an email late Tuesday evening.

[…]

This was the highest-turnout election to date in which Harris County used its new countywide voting system, where residents can visit any polling station on Election Day, instead of an assigned precinct.

Voting appeared to go smoothly across the county on Tuesday, with the exception of some voters receiving incorrect ballots at three polling stations. The clerk’s office said election workers were to blame for the errors.

I will engage this argument, but before I do let’s keep something in mind: The vast, overwhelming majority – like, 99% plus – of Harris County voters had no idea any of this was happening, and if they did know they wouldn’t have cared much. If they watched any election coverage Tuesday night, when they went to bed they knew Mayor Turner and Tony Buzbee were headed for a runoff, they knew the Metro referendum was going to pass, and they knew who was winning in their Council and HISD districts. Only a handful of people – reporters, candidates and campaign staffers, and some diehard nerds, a group that certainly includes me – cared that there wasn’t more than that. We’re talking a few dozen people on Twitter, max. Put the pain and suffering of this group of very special interests – again, a group that includes me; I was up till 2 AM on Election Night, obsessively hitting Refresh on harrisvotes.com like all those other chumps – up against the fact that no one in this higher-turnout-than-expected election complained about long lines or not being able to vote at all because they were at the wrong location, and tell me which matters more. Stan Stanart was bad at his job not just because he had a lousy track record of administering elections, but because he was an active impediment to engaging voters and encouraging participation. We’re way better off without him no matter what time he might have had returns up.

So that’s Diane Trautman’s explanation, and it may well be fully fair and accurate, but it’s all we got from that story. The Trib adds to what we know.

In past elections, results from individual precincts where taken to several drop-off locations around the county, which fed the tallies to the central office. This time, however, the electronic ballot cards with vote counts from individual precincts had to be driven from polling sites — some of them nearly 40 minutes away; some still running an hour after polls closed — into downtown Houston for tallying to begin. Just a quarter of returns had been reported right before midnight. A complete set didn’t come in until nearly 7 a.m. Wednesday.

“This was a painstakingly manual process that amounted to only one person processing [results] cards at a time where we could have had one person at each of the 10 drop off locations submitting electronically with our original plan,” Diane Trautman, the Harris County clerk, said in an email Wednesday morning. “The contingency plan we were forced to use was only meant to be used in case of natural disaster or power outage.”

The county switched to the more cumbersome process after an election advisory issued by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office days into the early voting period forced it to ditch its usual practice of sending returns to “rally stations” throughout the county to be downloaded.

Harris County had used a similar system for years, plugging memory cards, known as “mobile ballot boxes,” into specific readers at the rally stations and transmitting the vote tallies to a central office through a secure phone line, according to county officials. As it had in the May municipal election, the county was planning to use a secure encrypted internal network this time around.

But citing security worries, the secretary of state’s advisory required the county to make copies of those memory cards if it wanted to transmit the data over encrypted lines. The originals could be processed directly at the main office.

Though the advisory was issued on Oct. 23, election officials in Harris and other counties said they weren’t made aware of it until several days later. By then, county officials said, it was too late for the county to purchase the equipment needed to make copies.

“We could’ve done that if there had been more than 13 days warning,” said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney in Harris County. “It was just too short a period of time to get from point A to point B and pull this off in the way we intended to do it.”

Instead, the county turned to a contingency plan that included law enforcement escorts transporting ballot box memory cards from each polling site to the central counting station. The effort was further delayed when more than half of the county’s 757 polling places were still running at 8 p.m. as voters who were in line when polls closed finished casting their ballots.

In the aftermath of the Election Day mayhem, Harris County officials said they plan to get technology in place to resume using “rally stations” in the next election. They wonder why the secretary of state’s decided this year to object to a process long in place.

Ray says Keith Ingram, the state’s director of elections, told county attorneys during a conference call this week that Harris County’s procedures have actually been out of compliance with state law for a decade. Ray said state officials told him and other lawyers on the call that the secretary of state’s office was “compelled to issue” its advisory ahead of Tuesday’s election after facing external pressure from the Harris County GOP.

That tells us a lot, and the complaint from the Harris County GOP shows there was a political element to this. I mean, if this practice had been standard while Stan Stanart was Clerk, then what other reason is there for pushing a complaint now that he’s not except to make the new Clerk look bad? We still don’t have an official statement from the SOS, so there may well be more to this, but what we know now adds a whole other layer on top of this.

As to what the Clerk was doing, it sure sounds like they were planning to use a VPN connection to transmit the data. Encrypted VPNs are standard practice in enterprise security, and on its face should have been perfectly acceptable for use here. (It’s possible that the relevant state law that apparently forbade this is outdated, which may also explain why there had been a laissez-faire attitude towards it in the past.) From a practical perspective, this sounds fine, but the fact that it was not compliant means it was a risk, and we see what happened as a result.

Maybe they’re all still asleep, but I didn’t see any response to this story from the Twitter complainers about it when it came out on Wednesday afternoon. We still need to know more – what the SOS was thinking, why there was a delay in the Harris County Clerk getting this advisory, what the substance was of that GOP complaint, what other counties were in the same boat and how they handled it, etc etc etc – and so we need Commissioners Court to do a full and transparent interrogation of what happened, why it happened, and what we will do to make sure that the next elections – not just the December runoff but the massively larger 2020 primaries and general – don’t suffer from the same problems. Let the Commissioners and Judge Hidalgo ask Trautman and her staff all the questions, and don’t stop till everyone has the answers they’re seeking. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.

I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. The voting centers, as places to actually vote, worked great. The same bitchy Twitter conversation that moaned about the non-existent returns also credited them with maybe increasing turnout. Remember how many provisional ballots used to be cast in these elections, which was in part due to people voting at the wrong location? We won’t have any of that this time, and that’s a very big deal. But no one foresaw this possibility, and that failure led to the massive delays we experienced, which completely overwhelmed those positives. We need answers to all the remaining questions, and we need a more thorough plan for the next time, because a second performance like this one just cannot happen.

UPDATE: One more thing:

Accountability matters, and so far at least only party in this drama has been accountable.

UPDATE: The SOS finally speaks.

Keith Ingram, director of elections for the secretary of state, directed a reporter to an agency spokesman and hung up.

Ingram later shared an email he sent Wednesday evening to Houston Democratic State Sen. Carol Alvarado, in which he said Harris County ignored state law that prohibits counties from connecting voting systems to external networks such as an intranet. Alvarado on Monday asked for clarification of the election advisory.

“The clerk was planning to use this risky method of results reporting even though they were fully aware it was illegal to do so, and with apparent disregard to the fact that the intelligence community has repeatedly warned election officials since 2016 of the continuing desire of nation states to interfere with our election process,” Ingram wrote. He also told Alvarado he had explained the state’s rules about vote counting systems to a Harris County Clerk’s representative on Oct. 2.

I would question the “risky” assertion. The legality is a separate matter, though enforcement has seemingly been inconsistent. There are still a lot of questions to be answered here.

Today is Election Day

From the inbox:

Election Day is November 5th and thanks to countywide voting, more than 2.3 million eligible voters in Harris County may cast their ballots at the voting center of their choice. A total of 757 polling locations throughout the county will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“Countywide voting provides options and eliminates confusion,” said Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman. “Instead of having to find an assigned polling location, voters can choose a voting center that is most convenient to wherever they may be on Election Day.”

At the end of early voting, 137,460 people voted in person and 15,304 voted by mail, for a total of 152,764. This year’s Joint General and Special Elections ballot includes municipal and statewide races, several referendums, and 10 proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution.

“We truly hope that all registered voters exercise their right to vote,” added Dr. Trautman. “Remember, every voice matters, be proactive and vote your way.”

Harris County voters can find individual sample ballots, Election Day polling locations, and utilize the new wait time feature at www.HarrisVotes.com. Mobile phone users can text VOTE to 1-833-937-0700 to find the nearest voting center.

Unofficial Election Day results will be posted on www.HarrisVotes.com as they come in on election night, starting at 7 p.m. with Early Voting and Ballot by Mail results. Official results will be posted after the canvass is completed.

More information on polling places is here, and you can search the nifty poll finder map to locate polling places near you. Lines are likely to not be too bad, but this is all a test for next year, when turnout will be off the charts. If you vote today, let us know what your experience was. I’ll round up all the results tomorrow.

Voting centers everywhere

In Dallas:

Starting in November, problems like Mr. Voter’s, at least in Dallas County, will be a thing of the past. Tuesday afternoon, the Texas Secretary of State’s Office officially gave the county permission to participate in the countywide voting program the state allows its most populous counties to opt into. That means that whenever you vote, whether it’s early or on Election Day, you can vote at whatever polling place you choose, as long as you’re both registered to vote in Dallas County and physically in Dallas County.

County commissioners voted to ask the state to get in on the program this spring, after county staff said participation would streamline the voting process, potentially increase voter turnout and decrease the number of voters who cast provisional ballots.

“It is time to come into the 21st century and have an election system that actually works,” Commissioner Elba Garcia said in March. “The main point about vote centers is that we have people, over 3,000 people, that wanted to vote during the last election and they were not able to do it. Voting centers bring that to the table. It’s time to make sure that anyone who wants to vote is able to go and vote in the right place without any problems.”

[…]

In order to participate in countywide voting this November, Dallas County had to upgrade its voter check-in system, something you may have noticed if you’re one of the literally hundreds of people who voted in May or June’s municipal elections. Those looking to cast ballots now check in on a cloud-connected tablet that has service from two carriers, in case one is on the fritz.

November’s state constitutional amendment election is essentially a dry run. If everything comes off without a hitch, and Dallas County sends a successful report to the state, the county will be able to offer countywide polling places during all elections moving forward.

In San Antonio:

The Secretary of State approved Bexar County’s adoption of the vote center model Friday for the upcoming November election, Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen told county commissioners Tuesday.

The November election will serve as the “soft rollout” for the vote center model, Callanen said. Vote centers allow voters to cast ballots at any location in Bexar County on Election Day. The county previously used the precinct model, under which voters were required to cast ballots at their specific precincts on election day.

“When we do publication [of voting locations], we’ll have Vote Center 1, VC 2, VC 3, and addresses listed,” Callanen said. “No longer are we precinct-driven.”

Callanen said she expected people to get used to the new model after a complete election cycle. The Elections Department plans to start its advertising push after Oct. 1 to allow people enough time to hear about and understand the new voting model.

“I think that will take a little assistance to get the word out,” she said.

This year’s Nov. 5 Election Day will feature 10 constitutional amendments on the ballot, and turnout is expected to be low. However, county election officials view the election as an important dress rehearsal for the November 2020 presidential election.

Both will join Harris County, which had its dry run in May and will get a fuller test this November, with the city of Houston elections and the Metro referendum. It’s a good thing that voting centers are spreading, because traditional polling places have been going away in the state in recent years.

A new report out from the Leadership Conference Education Fund found that Texas is leading the nation in polling place closures, another practice that voting rights advocates fear can lead to disenfranchisement.

The report, titled “Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote,” looked at 757 of the 861 counties and county-level equivalents across the nation that were previously covered by Section 5, and found that 750 polling places in Texas have been shuttered since Shelby. That constitutes almost half of all polling places in the U.S. closed since 2013. Fourteen Texas counties closed at least 50 percent of their polling places after Shelby, and 590 have been shuttered since the 2014 midterm election.

Maricopa County in Arizona had the most polling place closures, but that was followed by six counties in Texas: Dallas lost 74 places; Travis lost 67; Harris shuttered 52; Brazoria closed 37; and Nueces closed 37.

“The large number of polling location closures is attributable to the size of Texas and the fact that we’re no longer under preclearance,” said Beth Stevens, director of the Voting Rights Program at the Texas Civil Rights Project. Now, “there’s no one [the state needs] to ask for permission to make changes.”

[…]

This comes into focus when looking at the demographics of some of the counties that saw the most closures. Brazoria County, which lost 59 percent of its polling locations since Shelby, is 30 percent Latino and 13 percent African American. The number of polling places in Nueces County, home to Corpus Christi and 63 percent Latinx, dropped by nearly a third. In Jefferson County, where Beaumont is located, about 34 percent of its 250,000 residents are African American and 20 percent are Latino; polling places there dropped from 57 in 2012 to 39 in 2018.

The report attributes some of these closures to jurisdictions adopting the county-wide polling program and opening voting mega-centers. By allowing people to cast a ballot on Election Day at any location, instead of bounding them to their precinct, the program is supposed to make voting easier (more locations to choose from, shorter lines).

The Texas Civil Rights Project is supportive of the program, said Stevens—so long as it’s enacted responsibly. She pointed to counties like Harris and Bexar as good examples: they’ve moved to county-wide polling while maintaining every single polling location that they would otherwise be required to have.

But, the report notes, some counties with large drops in polling locations—like Somervell (minus 80 percent), Loving (minus 75 percent), and Stonewall (minus 75 percent)—didn’t transition to vote centers. The report adds, “voters in counties that still hold precinct-style elections have 250 fewer voting locations than they did in 2012.”

The report is here and I’ve just glanced at some of it, so I can’t give you too much extra context. Some of what’s reported in the Observer is a bit alarmist, however. Loving County had 110 total registered voters in 2016, and its demographics are almost entirely Anglo. I’d bet that its “75% reduction” is going from four sites to one. Stonewall County had 998 RVs total in 2016. Every voter counts, but not every county’s actions are equal in scope. The statistics for Brazoria, Jefferson, and Nueces counties sounds more ominous, but all of them use voting centers as well. Travis County, of course, is one of the pioneers of voting centers; one of the people in charge of implementing the Harris County program came from the Travis County Clerk’s office having done the same thing there. What all this means is we need more information about how well or not these are working and what the effect are on voters of color. Which, as is noted in the report summary, is a hard thing to assess without Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This is definitely something to watch, I just can’t say right now what the level of concern needs to be. The Chron, whose story gets more into the details about voting centers, has more.

More ways to improve access to voting

In Harris County:

Inmates of the Harris County Jail may soon be able to vote. Harris County leaders have approved a study on setting up a polling location at the jail as early as this November.

The County Clerk’s and Sheriff’s Offices will explore if they can set up a polling location at the jail in time for this Election Day. Commissioner Adrian Garcia proposed the measure.

“It’s their constitutional right, and so we need to make sure that we’re following that particular law,” Garcia said.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis seconded the proposal, which passed along party lines in a three-to-two vote. “Remember, the ones sitting in the jail haven’t been convicted yet, unless they’ve been convicted of something else,” Ellis said. “And for what it’s worth, there may be people in line to visit them who can vote.”

If you don’t like this idea, then I have good news for you: The bail lawsuit settlement means that there will be far fewer inmates in the jail who might get to take advantage of this. Just remember, you don’t lose your right to vote until you plead guilty to or are found guilty of a felony, and if that happens you’re going to a state prison, not the county jail. If you’re in the jail awaiting trial or serving a misdemeanor sentence, you’re still a legal voter.

From Bexar County:

[County Commissioner Justin] Rodriguez, a former Democratic member of the Texas House, is asking the Bexar Commissioner’s Court to form an advisory committee to identify improvements to the county’s voting procedures, step up voter education and drive higher turnout. He hopes the group — made up of residents and members of nonprofits and other stakeholders — can make progress on that work ahead of the November 2020 presidential election.

“It doesn’t seem like we’re getting much help from state leaders on how to best administer elections or get people out to vote,” said Rodriguez, who worked with voter-turnout group MOVE Texas to formulate his plan. “I think the best solution for us is to act locally.”

[…]

Rodriguez said he’s confident he has the votes on County Commissioner’s court to support his measure and start assembling the committee in coming weeks.

As that story notes, Bexar County is also implementing voting centers this year. I don’t know what Commissioner Rodriguez and his committee will come up with, but I hope we keep an eye on them here in Harris. I’m sure we’ll be able to learn something from their experience.

UPDATE: Received the following email from County Clerk Diane Trautman:

“Due to the Labor Day holiday and other prior commitments, the Harris County Clerk and Sheriff’s offices are still in the exploratory stage of determining the best way to meet the voting needs of Harris County residents that are in jail. Determining a new voting location requires several steps and usually takes many months to confirm. This process includes wifi connectivity, ADA compliance, available parking, legality of location, and availability of location. Due to voting locations already being set for the upcoming November election, the ballot by mail program will be the best voting option for those who are incarcerated in the November election.”

For more information please email [email protected]

Hopefully this can happen in time for 2020.

Harris County gets official approval for voting centers

Full steam ahead.

Diane Trautman

Harris County on Monday received permission to use voting centers, which enable voters to cast ballots at any location they choose, in high-turnout elections, County Clerk Diane Trautman announced.

Under this system, voters are not required to vote in their assigned precinct. Trautman, who has made establishing the centers a top priority since taking office in January, has said the change will make voting easier, since residents can more easily cast ballots near work or school.

More than one-third of voters visited polling sites outside their home precinct in May’s low-turnout school and municipal elections during a voting centers trial run, the clerk’s office said. Trautman called that test a success and asked the secretary of state to approve using the system in general elections, which can draw more than 1 million voters.

“Feedback from communities across the county has been largely positive, and I am pleased that voters will be able to choose a convenient location to cast their ballot,” Trautman said in a statement.

See here for the background, and here for Trautman’s statement. There are some issues to work out in advance of the voting centers’ implementation, but I have faith in the Clerk’s ability to get it all done. I look forward to seeing the finished product.

The main concern about voting centers

This Trib story, which is about the implementation of voting centers in multiple counties across Texas for the 2020 election, delves into one of the main concern about them: Voting centers can change from one election to the next, which could mean the closure of a location that has been in use for a long time.

Diane Trautman

The switch from precinct-based voting locations to countywide vote centers is often followed by closures and consolidations of polling places both for logistical and cost-saving reasons. Because the criteria for those changes is typically based, in part, on traffic at each voting site, community leaders and voting rights advocates are wary that could translate to more polling location closures in areas with predominantly Hispanic, black and lower-income residents, who participate in elections at lower rates than white and more affluent Texans.

“Our concern is to make sure that we increase the likelihood of people voting,” James Douglas, head of the NAACP branch in Houston, warned the Harris County Commissioner’s Court earlier this year. “This ought not be about money.”

[…]

Although provisional ballots are used to record a person’s vote when there are questions about eligibility or if a person is at the wrong precinct location, the ballots fall short of fully illustrating the scope of precinct-based voting problems because there’s no way of tracking voters who showed up at the wrong voting site and then went home without voting provisionally. But data collected by the Texas Civil Rights Project showed that the number of rejected provisional ballots cast by voters who showed up at the wrong location crept up from 2,810 in 2016 to roughly 4,230 last year in the state’s four largest counties — Harris, Dallas, Bexar and Tarrant, which are all working to transition to the vote center model.

More than half of those recorded rejections came out of Harris County, where Diane Trautman, a Democrat who was elected county clerk in 2018, moved quickly to implement vote centers and received approval to use a May municipal election as a trial run.

Trautman — like county officials in Dallas and Tarrant — has vowed to leave all existing polling locations in place through 2020. Opening up its 700 polling locations to all voters will make Harris one of the nation’s largest counties running vote centers.

Still, community leaders were troubled by a portion of the county’s written plan to make countywide voting permanent. That plan lists “voter turnout” first under the criteria to be considered for possible future polling place consolidations.

“This is going to be a question and a test for all the larger counties that are going forward” with vote centers, Trautman said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.

In weighing polling place closures, counties adopting vote centers typically consider factors like turnout and Wi-Fi connectivity. Vote centers depend on e-pollbooks, which electronically record whether a voter has already cast a ballot, and must be networked with other polling sites.

In Dallas County, election officials are reviewing whether to consolidate dozens of voting sites that are serving voters from multiple precincts and what to do with polling locations that are in close proximity. Community members there warned against closures primarily based on voter turnout even if other voting sites appeared to be nearby.

“Being half a mile is not across the street. Having to cross the freeway is not across the street. We do not support the closures,” said Kimberly Olsen, political field director for the Texas Organizing Project, which advocates for communities of color and low-income Texans.

Trautman noted any changes in Harris County would be run by a community advisory committee with an eye toward preserving polling locations that traditionally serve voters of color, residents who speak different languages and people with disabilities, but it’s unlikely the county would move too far from the current number of polling locations. And she said she would not trade tradition, especially in areas where voters have cast their ballots at the same polling place for 100 years, for county cost-savings.

“We have no intention of disturbing that,” Trautman said. “I don’t care if two people voted in that location.”

As I’ve noted before, traditional polling places are often consolidated for lower-turnout elections. In Harris County, for anything other than a November-in-an-even-year race, you were always well advised to check and see what locations were open before you headed out on Election Day. In this sense, that’s nothing new. County election administrators do need to be careful, and solicit plenty of public feedback, when deciding on what locations should be used in any election. I think this is far less likely to be an issue in an election like 2020, but it will be an ongoing concern, with odd-year local elections being a particular spot for problems. Elections administrators will need to be transparent, Commissioners Courts will need to exert oversight, and the rest of us will need to pay attention. If we all do that much, we ought to be all right.

A preview of the joint primary

Diane Trautman

Like Campos and John Coby, I recently had the opportunity to visit the Harris County Clerk and get a preview of the proposed joint primary. Coby describes it in some detail, with pictures, so I won’t duplicate his effort. Basically, the process will be very much like what you are used to already. The main difference in terms of the experience is that instead of telling the poll worker what primary you want to vote in, you pick it from a touch-screen tablet. Otherwise, it’s exactly what you’ve done before – you show your ID and sign in, you get a code for one of the eSlate machines, and you go vote. That’s all there is to it. The practical effect is that now all of the machines are available to you. There aren’t machines designated for one primary or the other, so if you’re voting at a location that historically has a long line for one party with idle machines for the other, that will no longer happen. This should help the lines move more efficiently, which in a year where a very high turnout is expected on the Dem side is greatly appreciated.

Primaries are run by the parties, and the initial reaction to this was positive from the HCDP and negative from the Harris County Republican Party. We were told at this visit that both Dem Chair Lillie Schechter and GOP Chair Paul Simpson had been in to see the same setup, and it went well. Simpson is supposedly going to make a decision about this in the next two to three weeks. I asked about the experience other counties have had with joint primaries. Michael Winn, the elections administrator who came from Travis County, said they made the change in 2011 and haven’t looked back. We’ll see.

We also discussed how election night returns are reported, which was a concern in the May election after the switchover to voting centers. We’re used to seeing reports come in by precinct, but with anyone being able to vote anywhere now that’s going to be a different experience. They’re working on that now so as to provide a better picture of where the vote totals are coming from, and they promised a preview for interested parties (campaigns, media, etc) in October. I’ll report back then. In the meantime, I have a good feeling about how this is going. Let me know if you have any questions.

Moving ahead with voting centers

The first time was a success, so we’re going to keep using them.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted unanimously to apply for state approval to expand the use of countywide polling places to general elections.

County Clerk Diane Trautman said a trial run of the system during the low-turnout school board elections in May was successful. Trautman’s goal since taking office in January has been to implement countywide polling, where voters can cast ballots at any location rather than in assigned precincts, in high-turnout general elections which can draw more than 1 million voters.

Previously, Harris County featured countywide voting only at a small number of early voting sites, and never on Election Day.

“I am very pleased with the results of the May election,” Trautman said Tuesday. “As I hoped, in using a small election, we would find areas where to improve, and we did.”

[…]

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who in the past has raised concerns about elderly voters losing their longtime polling places to consolidation, asked Trautman to promise to keep all polling places open. Trautman replied she would not close any sites.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the addition of countywide polling centers should make voting more convenient, since residents can use sites close to work or school, and boost turnout.

“It’s bringing that increased access to the vote to so many more people,” Hidalgo said.

A Rice University survey of 256 voters in the May election by Elizabeth Vann and Bob Stein found that most residents visited polling sites within one mile of home.

“Did voters seem satisfied? Overwhelmingly,” Stein said. “About 90 percent claimed they were satisfied finding their location.”

Stein, a professor of political science, cautioned that higher-turnout elections will bring additional challenges, such as long lines and parking problems. He said he plans to study the 2019 Houston municipal elections in November, which will have higher turnout than the May school board balloting, but still low compared to a November midterm or presidential election.

I’m very glad to hear that the people who voted liked the experience. I’m a confirmed early voter, so nothing will change for me, but lots of people vote on Election Day, and this should make it better for them. I have very modest expectations about how it will affect turnout, but I do think it will help keep lines from getting too long. There are improvements I’d like to see made in how the returns are reported, which I hope can be in place for this November. Otherwise, I look forward to getting this implemented.

First test drive of Harris County voting centers

Overall I thought things went well for the Saturday election – final results were all in by 9 PM or so – but Campos observed a few issues.

Diane Trautman

Commentary is all for the voting centers on Election Day. If my precinct is in the Heights, I can vote on Election Day at the Community Center in Baytown if I am with my Dad. The issue is how the results are reported and presented to the public on Election Night.

When the first Election Day results were posted at 8:19 pm, the Election Day posting said Precincts Reporting 296 of 296 = 100%. In the past that meant all the precincts were counted. Everything is in. It makes it appear that since all the precincts are reporting they have all been counted, like it says when you look at the individual races on the posting. For example, in the South Houston Mayoral race, it said all 3 precincts had been counted but in the Election Day vote column, zero votes had been tallied. That’s the image I posted on my Today’s Take tweet.

If you go to the @HarrisVotes Election Day – Beta page you get a more detailed view of the reported votes. On that page, if you look closely at a tab, it told you how many of the voting centers had reported. There were 111 voting centers, which are the voting precinct locations and many precincts are combined – that’s why we don’t have 296 voting centers.

The Election Day – Beta page was first introduced and used in the December 11 State Senate District 6 Special Election and again for the State House District 145 Special Election and Runoff. In those races, voting centers were not used and they were the only races on the ballot. In those elections, on the Beta page, when you looked at the precinct-by-precinct results, a green check by the precinct indicated all the votes from the precinct were counted and complete. This past Saturday, on the Beta page, every precinct had the green check at the first posting at 8:19 pm even though some of them had not reported or counted a single Election Day vote like in South Houston.

Commentary got a few calls from folks wondering what to make of the way the results were being reported and it took part of the evening for me to figure it out.

@HarrisVotes needs to figure out a way to report and present where most folks can understand. If you can vote at any of the voting centers in the county on Election Day, then you are not going know if a voting precinct has been fully counted until the last voting center has reported. That is a significant departure from the past. So, in a very close district race, you are going to have to wait until all the voting centers in the county have reported for you to know whether you won or lost. Maybe @HarrisVotes can post which voting centers have reported so we can get a sense of what is out there.

@HarrisVotes should have added to their tweet yesterday that they understand there was a bit of confusion on how some were interpreting the posting of the results Saturday evening and they will be working to resolve those for future elections. It would probably be Ok if they ask some of the pros who regularly visit their webpage at 7 pm on Election Night for our thoughts. Just saying.

In a way, @HarrisVotes is lucky they rolled it out for this past election and they can fine tune it so to speak. If they would have rolled it out next March for the party primaries where more meaner folks than Commentary are involved, a sh_tstorm would have ensued on Election Night.

I noticed the same thing in the Pasadena City Council elections. Initially, while the election night returns page was saying that all 296 precincts had reported, it was showing single digit Election Day vote totals in each of the individual Council races. That sure didn’t seem right. On the plus side, the next time I refreshed the page, maybe 15 or 20 minutes later, a fuller set of numbers had been reported. I don’t remember now if there was another update after that – I was paying more attention to the San Antonio Mayor’s race by that time – but because I couldn’t rely on the number of precincts reporting to tell me the state of progress I had to keep checking in to see if anything had changed. After awhile, it was clear that we were done.

This is surely fixable, and it’s the reason why the shakedown cruise was done during a low-turnout May election. I think a running total of vote centers that have reported, along with a table showing which ones and where they are – be sure to include what State Rep District they’re in, with City Council district for races like the one this November – would fit the bill. We could approximate that in the past by seeing how many precincts were yet to report in district races; it was how I felt confident, with a hundred or so precincts still out, that Lina Hidalgo was going to catch up to and pass Ed Emmett in 2018, by noting that nearly all of the outstanding precincts were in heavily Dem districts. Give us something like that now, and all will be well. Candidates, reporters, and other election nerds will thank you.

Today is May Election Day

From the inbox:

Harris County Kicks Off First Election With Countywide Polling Place Program

Houston, TX– Saturday, May 4, 2019, is Election Day for approximately 708,000 eligible voters in Harris County.  This election is the first since being approved for a Countywide Polling Place Program, which means voters will be able to cast a ballot at any of the 113 Election Day Polling Locations.  All polling locations will be open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

The Harris County Clerk’s office will conduct elections for 23 local jurisdictions across the county. Voters residing in these jurisdictions can find their individual sample ballots, Election Day polling locations, and utilize the new wait time feature at www.HarrisVotes.com.

“Since voters can choose to cast a ballot anywhere in the county, harrisvotes.com will help them find their specific sample ballot, the nearest 5 polling locations and let them know what the anticipated wait time is at each location,” explained Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman.

At the end of the Early Voting period, only 18,216 votes had been cast in the election or about 2.7%. An approximate additional 30 local jurisdictions in Harris County will also conduct elections on the same day.

For more information about the May 4 Joint Election and the Countywide Polling Place Program, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

See here for more on the races of interest. If you live in Sugar Land or Pasadena, I hope you had a chance to listen to my interviews with Nabila Mansoor and Steve Halvorson. I’ll round up the results tomorrow. If you live someplace with an election happening, get out there and vote.

Harris County settles ADA voting rights lawsuit

Chalk up another accomplishment for our new county overlords.

The U.S. Department of Justice will monitor Harris County elections, at county expense, for up to four years under the settlement of a federal lawsuit over inadequate access to polling places for voters with disabilities.

Commissioners Court approved the 15-page settlement during at its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday. The item originally was designated for a closed-door executive session, but court members simply agreed to First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard’s recommendation they sign off on the deal.

Under the agreement, Harris County will have to make minor accessibility improvements to as many as 300 of its 750 regular voting sites, hire two outside election experts to supervise balloting and designate an in-house Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officer. The county does not have to concede it has violated the ADA in past elections.

“It’s a fair settlement,” Soard said. “It’s a reasonable way to conclude this litigation.”

Toby Cole, a quadriplegic attorney who almost exclusively represents wheelchair users, said the settlement and extended federal supervision are essential because disabled voters often are reluctant to complain about problems they encounter.

“They don’t want to make a huge fuss,” Cole said. “So, you don’t vote the first time, then the second time. We cut things out of our lives already, and voting is one more thing to say is too difficult.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said after the meeting she is confident the county will be able to show the federal government much sooner than four years it is capable of running an election in which each polling place meets ADA guidelines.

“We’ve got a court, and a county clerk, and a county attorney that are committed to equitable access to elections,” Hidalgo said. “We’re all working to make sure we adhere to that settlement.”

[…]

Monica Flores-Richart, whom County Clerk Diane Trautman hired in January as the county’s ADA compliance officer, said the office will re-examine each polling place. In most cases, she said problems can be identified and addressed quickly.

“We’re not talking about permanent improvements,” Flores-Richart said. “If there’s a gap of a certain size in the sidewalk, you need to put a mat down. Those are the kind of things we’re talking about.”

The settlement requires the county to submit a new ADA compliance plan to the Justice Department within 120 days. The county also must hire at least 20 contractors, or use county employees, to monitor each countywide election.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’ve expressed a modicum of sympathy for the County Clerk in the past regarding this litigation, which was filed in August of 2016 following a letter of finding in 2014, but if this is all it took to settle the case, I have to wonder why it took so long. Well, okay, I know the answer to that, and it has to do with whose picture you see when you load up the harrisvotes.com website. But seriously, this should have been wrapped up long before now. Be that as it may, kudos to all for getting it done. I share Judge Hidalgo’s confidence that Harris County can complete the terms of the settlement in less than the time allotted. The Trib has more.

Vote centers approved for Harris County

From the inbox:

Diane Trautman

Today, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley approved Harris County as one of six Texas counties with a population of more than 100,000 to participate in the Countywide Polling Place Program. With over 2 million registered voters, this makes Harris County the largest county in the country to implement this program. The state program allows eligible counties to establish non-precinct based Election Day Voting Centers.

“The voters of Harris County have made it clear that a Countywide Polling Place Program would have a positive impact on elections and I am confident that the transition to a Countywide Polling Place Program will be successful”, announced Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman.

Voters will now be able to vote anywhere in Harris County on Election Day, beginning with the May 4, 2019 Joint Election. All elections, including general, special, joint, primaries, and runoffs will be recommended to use the Countywide Polling Place Program.

“The Countywide Polling Place Program will allow more Houstonians to exercise their most precious right, the right to vote”, stated Dr. Trautman.

Voters can find more information on the Countywide Polling Place Program by visiting www.HarrisVotes.com or by calling the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

See here and here for the background. The Vote Centers section of the County Clerk page is here, and the plan outline is here.

The Chron story has more:

Proponents of the countywide system tout it as a way to boost voter participation. Supporters also say it eventually could cut election costs because counties can replace smaller precinct sites with larger voting centers. More than 50 Texas counties successfully have implemented the countywide program, including neighboring Fort Bend and Brazoria, and some have seen an uptick in voter participation.

Trautman has said she would start by using the county’s 46 early voting locations as Election Day voting centers, in addition to traditional precinct polling sites, which she would not close before first seeking the approval of residents.

Jay Aiyer, a Texas Southern University political analyst, said Trautman should wait at least a few election cycles before removing any precinct sites to avoid disenfranchising voters.

“Harris County is basically a state,” Aiyer said. “So, what we’re talking about is a pretty fundamental change of an electoral process for an area, or at least a population base, that’s larger than 25 states.”

Some concerns, Aiyer said, include the vast length of Harris County’s ballot and the lack of straight-ticket voting in 2020, the first time Texas voters will be without that option. The change likely will create longer lines at the polls, Aiyer noted.

Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson decried the move, contending that Trautman, “in a rush to revamp Harris County voting,” is using unreliable technology that would actually depress turnout.

“Trumpeting her new system as voter-approved, Ms. Trautman, in fact, hand-picked groups to support her voting center scheme despite the risk it poses to all Harris County voters,” Simpson said in a statement. “Her unproven voting center scheme might work in a smaller county. But in the large and diverse community of Harris County, it risks vote dilution and discouraging, confusing, and disenfranchising countless voters on election day.”

Lubbock County became the first in Texas to run a countywide polling operation in 2006, under what was then a pilot program enacted by the Legislature. Since then, state lawmakers have made the program permanent, and Travis County, with about 788,000 registered voters as of the November midterms, is the largest Texas county to use the voting centers.

Trautman deliberately sought state approval before the May elections so she could roll out the program during a low-turnout election, instead of during the November 2019 city election or 2020 presidential election when turnout runs much higher. Harris County must secure approval from the secretary of state’s office after the May 4 election to continue using the countywide polling program.

Still, Simpson said he worried that voting centers would be unable to communicate electronically on Election Day to ensure no one votes more than once. County officials have said otherwise, and the state’s elections director, Keith Ingram, wrote in a letter to County Judge Lina Hidalgo Thursday that documentation provided by the county reflects that its polling devices can update the master voter database even upon losing cellular connection.

Former Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, a Republican whom Trautman defeated, said during the campaign he was open to countywide polling sites. The option is only available, Stanart said, because the county began using electronic poll books, or modified iPads, that communicate with each other to prevent people from voting more than once.

Not that there’s ever a reason to listen to Paul Simpson, but every one of his objections has been contradicted. The vote to apply for state approval was unanimous in Commissioners Court as well, so at every step of the way this has been a bipartisan process. Plus, you know, this is something Trautman explicitly campaigned on, and she won. As they say, elections have consequences.

Vote centers advance

The other big story from Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting.

Diane Trautman

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman’s plan to shift to countywide voting centers inched forward this week when Commissioners Court unanimously agreed to file an application with the secretary of state asking permission.

Trautman hopes to incrementally open voting centers, where any county resident can cast a ballot on Election Day. Harris County currently uses voting centers for early balloting, but residents are required to use their assigned precinct locations on Election Day.

Michael Winn, who helped launch voting centers in Travis County before joining Trautman’s staff in January, said the change boosted turnout by 10 to 12 percent there. The centers offer voters more flexibility to cast ballots near their school or place of employment, which may be far from their assigned polling place.

The secretary of state must sign off on Harris County’s proposal before Trautman may proceed. She plans to open several Election Day voting centers in a low turnout election, such as a May school board balloting, before moving to a large-scale deployment for a general election.

See here for the background. There have been several public meetings to get feedback about this proposal. More planning will need to be done to determine the number and location of voting centers. I presume that will vary by turnout level, as has been the case with all-precinct locations, so accurately projecting turnout will be key. I have no idea how long this process takes, but we’ll be seeing these things sooner rather than later, at least for some elections.

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.

Use that mandate in Harris County

Jay Aiyer pens an agenda for Harris County and its Democratic government.

First and foremost, flood mitigation has to be at the top of any list. Harris County has taken good initial steps to improve flood control infrastructure, and the passage of flood control bonds was badly needed. Those steps however, are only the beginning of what needs to be done. Development changes that prohibit growth and expansion in the floodplain, and ideas from experts like Rice University’s Raj Makand to impose a moratorium on new municipal utility districts until the region has a comprehensive plan for flood mitigation should be considered. Infrastructure development in Harris County — everything from toll road expansion to affordable housing construction should be factored into flood control efforts. Flood mitigation needs to be the county’s top priority.

[…]

The need for ethics and transparency is also required at the Commissioner’s Court itself. Unlike Houston City Council or the Texas Legislature, Harris County government remains largely shrouded in secrecy. The lack of broad transparency and pro-forma meetings results in a policy process that is largely kept behind closed doors. Commissioners have wide latitude in how business is conducted within their precinct, but that should be governed by a strong ethics policy that requires lobbyists to register and places limits on campaign contributions. A strong government requires one grounded in ethics and transparency.

Access to the ballot box and the integrity of voting process remains a major concern to all voters. Harris County needs a transparent and error-free voter registration process that works to actively register voters. Texas is eliminating straight ticket voting in 2020 and Harris County needs to start preparing for the longer lines and logistical strains that surround the longest electoral ballot in the country. This means expanding the number early voting locations throughout the county, as well as extending the hours of operation. Harris County also needs to follow other Texas counties and create election day voting centers that allow voters to cast a vote at location throughout the county — not just at a precinct.

Part of the improving voting means replacing the outdated machines. The current click-wheel electronic voting system is outdated and slow in handling our long ballot. Harris County needs to invest in modern, verifiable voting machines that can provide confidence in the electoral process while allowing voters to exercise their vote quickly and efficiently. County government has historically worked to make voting more difficult and cumbersome, and these reforms would be a good first step in reversing that.

Finally, Harris County should also revisit initiatives around the expansion of early childcare. In 2013, the well-meaning pre-K training initiative “Early to Rise,” which called for a ballot initiative to expand pre-K training programs, was strongly opposed by outgoing County Judge Ed Emmett and the Republican majority of Commissioner’s Court. While that initial plan was limited in scope, the idea of a regional approach to expanding early child care is one that needs to be explored. Research indicates that investing in early education initiatives are the best way to mitigate the effects of poverty and improve long term educational outcomes. A countywide program may be the smartest long term investment that Harris County could make.

I endorse all of Jay’s idea, which he proposes as a first-100-days plan, and I’d add a few things of my own, none of which need to be done immediately. One is for Harris County to be a more active partner with Metro, and to be fully engaged in the forthcoming transit plan and referendum. There are a lot of ways the county can contribute to better transit, and with everything Metro has going on now, this is the time. Two, continue the work Ed Emmett started in consolidating services with Houston and other cities, and make non-MUD governance a part of that development reform Aiyer outlines. Three, figure out what the office of the Treasurer can and should be doing. Incoming Treasurer Dylan Osborne has his own ideas, of course, but my point is that back in the 90s Commissioners Court basically neutered the office during Don Sumners’ term. Maybe now the time has come to restore some actual power to that office. Other counties have Treasurers, perhaps we should look to them to see if there’s a good model to follow.

I’m sure there are plenty of other ideas. (The parts that I cut out for this excerpt talked about criminal justice and bail reform, some of which have been going on.) Reviving the pre-K proposal is especially something we should all get behind. The point is, there is much that can be done, and no reason to feel restrained by “we’ve always done it that way” thinking. If it’s a good idea, let’s talk about it and figure out if we can make it work. It’s a new era in Harris County.

Trautman talks new voting machines

As is usually the case, finding the funding will be the key.

Diane Trautman

The newly elected Harris County clerk plans to phase out the county’s eSlate voting machines, which have occasionally caused problems for voters.

Diane Trautman, who beat the incumbent in the countywide sweep of Democrats, also wants to improve the county’s elections technology so voters can cast ballots in any precinct on Election Day. Currently, residents are allowed to vote at any polling place during early voting, but must use a designated location on Election Day.

“We must replace the current electronic machines with an electronic machine that produces a verifiable paper trail,” Trautman said. “The problem, of course, is the funding.”

[…]

Stanart said he also had planned to phase out the eSlate voting machines if re-elected.

On average, the devices are eight years old. Most were purchased after a 2010 fire destroyed the warehouse where Harris County stored its voting machines.

Stanart’s spokesman, Hector de Leon, said the clerk’s office estimates that replacing the county’s 8,189 eSlate machines would cost about $75 million. Trautman said she would explore whether the state or federal government could cover part of the cost.

[…]

Meanwhile, Commissioners Court would need to approve the purchase of new machines, and members are supportive of the idea. Incoming Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said improving the voting experience for residents must be a priority.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle urged Trautman to prepare a detailed proposal for replacing the eSlate machines and present it to the court. He said new machines must be a technological upgrade and have a long-term life span.

“Let’s not throw out good machines just to get fancy new ones,” Cagle said. “What we buy next, let’s make sure it lasts a while, as well.”

I’m glad to hear that there is support for moving forward on this. We should write up our standards, talk to Travis County about their systems, revisit that cost estimate, and begin meeting with legislators and members of Congress to see what funding they may be able to provide. It also looks like we can begin work on moving towards a vote center system for Election Day, which ought to help alleviate some of the problems we have seen when precinct voting locations have had technical problems. I can’t wait to see how this goes.

Reps. Green and Green want investigation of voting machine shortage

I have three things to say about this.

eSlateImage

Two Houston congressmen are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether unequal distribution of voting machines and polling locations in Harris County disenfranchised minority voters during the March 1 primary election.

In a letter dated March 15, U.S. Reps. Al Green and Gene Green, both Houston Democrats, blamed insufficient voting machines and polling locations for “excessively long lines” in predominantly Hispanic and black precincts in Harris County. Citing local news reports, the congressmen indicated that long lines “deterred” minority voters from “exercising their right to vote that day.”

“The failure to distribute sufficient voting machines in predominantly Hispanic and African-American precincts in Harris County, in comparison to the resources made available in more affluent, predominantly Anglo precincts in the county, had a discriminatory impact on our constituents’ ability to participate in the political process,” the congressmen wrote.

[…]

The increased turnout — fueled by a heated Republican presidential race — left election officials scrambling to deliver additional voting machines to polling locations with long lines on election day. Still, some voters in Houston did not cast their votes until after 9:30 p.m. — hours after polls closed. Others reportedly abandoned their place in line without voting after waiting for hours.

The distribution of polling locations in primary elections is a responsibility of each county’s political party, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections and voting. Using a formula based on previous voter turnout, county parties are charged with estimating voter turnout and determining the number of voting machines and polling locations needed.

Individual county parties ultimately decide whether that estimate should be higher or lower depending on other factors, such as a contested presidential primary, said Alicia Pierce, a spokeswoman for the state agency

County and party officials estimated that about 144,000 voters would cast a Democratic primary ballot. But more than 227,000 Democratic voters made it to the polls for the primary election.

On the Republican side, officials estimated 265,000 voters would turn out but almost 330,000 voters actually cast a ballot.

Lane Lewis, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, pushed back on allegations of unequal distribution of polling locations, saying there was nothing “nefarious” behind the wait times.

The long lines were a result of higher than expected turnout, he added, and there was little indication from early voting figures that voter turnout would be so high.

1. The formula is based in part on “the percentage of voter turnout for the office that received the most votes in the most recent comparable party primary election”, which in this case would be 2012. I don’t think the initial estimates were terrible at the time they were made, which as I understand it was late last year; in fact, I think they were quite defensible. The problem was that there was no way to adjust those estimates based on the on-the-ground and at-the-time conditions. And even taking that into consideration, the general consensus in the days between the end of early voting and Tuesday, March 1 was that more than half of the people who were going to vote had already voted. That was the real problem, as a good 57% of the vote was cast on Tuesday. To me, the main learning from this needs to be that the hotter the election, the more likely that people will show up on Election Day.

2. Compounding the problem was the consolidation of Election Day voting locations. Roughly half of Republican voting locations were folded into others, while the same was true for well more than half of Democratic precincts. This was also an effect of the initial underestimation of turnout, but because there are so few voting machines at Election Day polling locations, and because these were primaries where you had to consider each race individually – no “straight party” option – it made the lines longer. One can make a good case that voting centers, as they have in Fort Bend and other places but which are still “under consideration” in Harris County, could have greatly ameliorated this problem, if for no other reason than they will have more voting machines available at each location.

3. All that said, it’s wholly appropriate for the Justice Department to investigate, and make whatever recommendations they can. In the end, however, this is a problem that needs to be addressed locally. Trail Blazers has more.

UPDATE: The Chron story is here, and the Press has more, including a copy of the letter that was sent.

Harris County keeps considering vote centers

Perhaps one of these days they will move forward on this.

vote-button

Seeking to making voting easier on Election Day, Harris County officials are considering shifting to a system that would allow voters to cast ballots at any county polling place rather than only at their neighborhood precinct.

These so-called “vote centers,” modeled after the countywide polling sites used during early voting, have been implemented by at least 33 Texas counties, including neighboring Fort Bend, since the state Legislature authorized a pilot program in 2005.

Four of the five members of Harris County’s Commissioners Court said they support the idea, citing a desire to make voting more convenient.

“As a concept, it makes all the sense in the world,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

[…]

Yet despite broad interest in vote centers, Emmett and Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart cited technological and logistical impediments to making the change soon in Harris County under current state law, which does not allow for adjustments based on county size.

Counties adopting vote centers for the first time are required retain 65 percent of the number of precinct polling places they otherwise would have used for that election. In subsequent elections, they must keep half the precinct polling sites.

That means if Harris County had transitioned to countywide polling places for November’s general election, it would have needed to open 492 vote centers in place of 757 precinct polling locations.

By contrast, the county of 4.4 million residents offered just 41 early voting sites.

“That’s totally illogical. That defeats the whole purpose,” Emmett said.

Explaining that he does not think Harris County would be able to participate without a legislative change allowing them to offer fewer voting centers, Emmett proposed opening 100 countywide polling places for the two weeks leading up to and through Election Day.

“That would make it easier for people to vote,” Emmett said.

See here for previous blogging on this subject. As I’ve said before, I think this is a good idea, and by now we have enough examples, including those of our neighbors in Fort Bend and Galveston, to see how this works. If we need a new law to allow for a more realistic number of vote centers, then let’s crank up the machinery to help make that happen in 2017. While we’re at it, let’s try again for online voter registration, too. Whatever we can do to improve the voting process in Harris County.

Fort Bend vote centers report

They seemed to work OK.

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Not all the kinks had been worked out in Fort Bend County – the first Election Day here that voters were allowed to cast ballots at any polling place.

When results were finally tallied and posted – around 10:40 p.m. – one of the effects became clear: 49,947 ballots had been cast, making for a 13.4 percent voter turnout.

It was a sizable increase over the 8.7 percent turnout in the county’s November 2013 election, which also included a bond proposal.

“We think it played out well,” Elections Administrator John Oldham said.

Fort Bend County was among six Texas counties with populations of more than 100,000 to use the so-called “Countywide Polling Precinct Program” on a trial basis Tuesday, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. Four other counties with populations less than 100,000 people also tried the system.

[…]

Fort Bend officials for years had considered whether to switch to all-county polling, Oldham said. Last summer, they put together how such a plan would be promoted and executed.

Elections staff expected to see increases at sites that had been used during early voting but didn’t predict the high demand that materialized at some centers.

“We didn’t really know where people would vote,” Oldham said. “We thought we did.”

Officials planned for about 500 voters at a site near Pecan Grove that had seen a few more than 100 voters a few years prior. On Tuesday, 998 people cast ballots there.

“We know we had some lines,” Oldham said, explaining that 40 or 50 people were still in line at the Pecan Grove site come 7 p.m.

Added Oldham: “We didn’t have horrible waits, but, you know, to me 40 minutes is too long … to me 20 minutes is too long.”

Although the aim of opening up polling places is not necessarily to increase voter turnout – the idea is to remove the hassle and confusion of voting so that residents don’t give up in frustration – higher turnout is a welcome side effect, Oldham said.

See here and here for some background. Turnout may have been up over 2013, but I wouldn’t put too much stock in a one-year comparison. As I’ve said before, I generally favor this idea. I don’t know if it will prove to be a turnout-increaser as a rule, but I think it has value even if there is no effect there. If you’re in Fort Bend or some other place that uses these, what is your opinion of them?

More on voting centers

I’ll be interested to see how this goes in Galveston.

vote-button

Just in time for the November election, Galveston County has launched the first mobile app of its kind in the state, called “Galveston Votes.” It uses GPS to direct people with lightning speed to the closest voting center.

Fort Bend County in November will make its first foray into using “voting centers” that are open to all voters county-wide, rather than restricting them to their neighborhood precinct.

Montgomery and Harris counties are studying whether to do the same thing.

These efforts are part of a growing trend to counter Texas’ low voter turnout – ranked nationally in 2014 third from the bottom. More and more counties across the state are moving toward using these voting centers. They are looking for any way they can to make voting more accessible and entice voters to the polls.

The centers, which can be located anywhere from grocery stores to shopping malls, may be used by any eligible voter within a county. Voters will no longer be restricted to one precinct site.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says the possible advantages include convenience, financial savings and increase in turnout. Possible drawbacks include a loss of the tradition of neighborhood voting, confusion if the scheme isn’t properly explained to voters and the cost of new equipment and technology.

[…]

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart plans to test new infrastructure at a few polling locations during the primary next March that could be used for future voting centers.

But Stanart warns that converting a county as large as Harris, with its 4.3 million people and 769 polling stations, would be logistically challenging and costly. Each polling station has to be electronically linked to update in “real time” the names of those who are voting at various stations.

“We do that now in early voting with 41 stations, but don’t have the ability to do 769 yet,” he said.

About 13 percent of all Texas counties are now using county-wide voting centers and the number keeps rising, said Alicia Pierce, spokesman for the Texas Secretary of State, who said many voters enjoy the convenience it affords.

“I live in Travis County, where they have adopted this system, and was able to cast my vote at a Fiesta store while getting groceries,” she said.

While the centers have proven convenient, the state is continuing to assess their impact on turnout.

See here, here, and here for some background. Fort Bend (as noted in the last link) is implementing voting centers for this election, which will have some effect on the Mayor’s race since there are a few thousand Houston voters in Fort Bend. Voting centers basically replicate the early voting experience on Election Day – there are a smaller number of locations, but you can use any of them – though this story makes it sound like there could be a lot more of them than the traditional early voting places, at locations that aren’t currently used. It would be nice to have a better idea of how many voting centers there are compared to EV locations and traditional polling places. Enough counties in Texas are doing this already, that data ought to be readily available.

As for claims that voting centers will help increase turnout, I’m skeptical. There is concern (again, in that last link above) that it could have the opposite effect, partly due to voter confusion, and partly due to vote centers not being as close to or as convenient for voters with mobility issues. I’ve said before that I believe these obstacles can be overcome, with sufficient outreach and care in the selection of vote center sites – perhaps some existing precinct voting locations can be used as vote centers – but the concerns need to be taken seriously. It’s not out of the question that if done poorly, vote centers could increase turnout in affluent areas while depressing it in lower income and minority neighborhoods, which would be completely unacceptable. Vote centers have existed in Texas since 2005, with 23 counties currently employing them and nine more piloting them this fall. We really should have some hard data by now to show the effect of this idea. Again, it would be nice to know more. I support the idea behind voting centers, but I’d like to know that we’ve been doing them right.

Vote centers in Fort Bend

I continue to like this idea.

vote-button

Voters may get more flexibility on Election Day as Fort Bend become the largest county in the Houston area to consider moving away from precinct polling sites.

“A voter could vote at any location on Election Day just like they do in early voting,” said John Oldham, Fort Bend’s election administrator.

The proposal to participate in the Texas Countywide Polling Place Program will be weighed at several upcoming meetings. The 2005 Legislature authorized counties to reduce the number of polling locations by up to half and allow voters to cast ballots where they choose. The number of places opting to use “vote centers” more than doubled over the last two years to 26, including Travis and Galvestion counties. Fort Bend and three others have announced their intent to file an application for the program by the August deadline.

“Vote centers” first appeared in Colorado in 2003 after a county clerk watched police block voters from entering the courthouse after 7 p.m. Voters had gone to the wrong precinct to cast their ballot but could not make it to the correct location before polls closed. Now, at least nine other states have allowed or tested the system, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus noted that vote centers can save money, streamline ballot oversight and provide convenience for voters. About two-thirds of Fort Bend ballots are cast during early voting, which he said could signal that similar flexibility on Election Day would be well received.

“But any changes to where and how people vote can have collateral lower turnout. You’ll have people used to voting in a certain place,” Rottinghaus said. “There’s always an unknown factor, too. It may be intimidating for people who don’t regularly vote, or the location of polling places could make it less convenient for some.”

[…]

The primary reason Oldham said he wanted to switch to vote centers was to reduce the number of provisional ballots cast when a person shows up to the wrong location. That was the case for 26 of 242 provisional ballots in 2014 and 71 of 1,057 in 2012.

I have been a supporter of vote centers since I first heard of the idea, largely for the reason given in that last paragraph above. The concern about confusion and possibly lower turnout is legitimate, but as I said in that second post I linked to, it can be dealt with by sufficient outreach, and by placing some vote centers in current precinct locations. Some of that outreach can be to figure out where they need to be. And you may notice that the first post I linked to is from 2009. We’ve had vote centers for several years now, and as you can see from the map in the Chron story, we have a couple dozen counties around the state using them. We don’t need to guess about possible effects on turnout, we should have more than enough data by now to draw conclusions about it. Perhaps one of our oft-quoted political experts can get on that.

Vote centers in Travis County

This will be interesting to observe.

Come Nov. 6, Travis County residents can vote at any polling place in the presidential election, county commissioners decided Tuesday.

County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir recommended the switch to the “vote center” system, which allows people to vote at any pollng place in the county on Election Day rather than only at the designated location for a precinct.

“Voters don’t have to be so aware of being within a strict boundary line,” DeBeauvoir said.

[…]

Travis County Republican Party Chairwoman Rosemary Edwards said she doubted the legality of the action, saying that the state law is meant to consolidate polling places.

“In this way, there is no savings since there is no consolidation,” Edwards said.

DeBeauvoir maintained that the county’s use of vote centers is legal and that keeping neighborhood polling places open is in line with citizen requests.

There’s no technical reason why people can’t vote anywhere on Election Day as they do during early voting. In the election contests we have seen over the past decade – I’m specifically thinking of Vo/Heflin in 2004 and Howard/Neil in 2010 – a number of the votes that were challenged by the contestants were cast by people who were in the correct district but the wrong precinct. Those votes were allowed to be counted. I personally think this model makes a lot of sense, especially for lower turnout elections where it could save some money. The main objection would be that voters who are used to their precinct locations might not know where to go or might have greater difficulty getting to a different location. The former can be dealt with by sufficient outreach and education – it is often the case that precinct locations are consolidated on Election Day; at least with voting centers there would be no such surprises – and the latter can be handled by placing some vote centers in traditional precinct locations where it makes sense to do so. There is no technical reason why we cannot allow you to vote wherever it happens to be most convenient for you. We should work towards making that happen.