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Report to the 81st Legislature on House Bill 3105, Relating to Countywide Polling Place Pilot Program

Brief Overview

This report is submitted in accordance with House Bill 3105, 80th Regular Session, 2007, which required the Secretary of State to establish a pilot program for the 2008 election year allowing counties to conduct election day voting for the November 4, 2008 General Elections and elections held on the May uniform election date at countywide voting locations (also known as "super precincts" or "vote centers"), instead of providing polling places in each regular county election precinct.  Participation in the pilot program was limited to counties that exclusively use direct recording electronic ("DRE") voting systems and provide a computerized and linked voter registration list at each polling place.  In addition, counties that wished to participate were required to conduct a public hearing prior to joining the pilot program and submit a transcript of the hearing to the Secretary of State.  With a few changes, the pilot program was essentially a re-implementation of House Bill 758 from the 79th Legislature.

Background

House Bill 758 was enacted by the 79th Legislature and required the Secretary of State to establish a pilot program in one or more counties as a test of the countywide voting location concept.  Lubbock County was the only county to participate, successfully running a countywide precinct pilot for the November 2006 general election.  In the 80th Regular Session, the Legislature enacted House Bill 3105, authorizing another pilot program for the 2008 election year.  The pilot was limited to elections held countywide on the May uniform election date and the November 4, 2008 General Election for State and County officers, excluding the March and April 2008 primary elections.  House Bill 3105 contained a number of changes from the previous legislation.  Specifically, it added language requiring the county to adopt a methodology for determining its polling place locations.  It also included a new requirement that participating counties could not reduce the total number of polling places to less than fifty percent of the number of regular precinct polling places that would normally be used in the county.

Implementation

The Texas Secretary of State invited counties to participate in the pilot program by mailing a memorandum to county clerks and elections administrators in January 2008.  The memo set up a schedule for participation.  The counties had a March 31, 2008 deadline to submit a notice of intent to participate in the pilot to the Secretary of State.  The deadline was set early in the year in recognition that a county would need to conduct the required public hearings, consult with local political subdivisions, interest groups, and party chairs, develop the methodology to determine the polling places, and submit the changes to the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) under the federal Voting Rights Act.  The schedule required participating counties to submit their final plans to the Secretary of State by June 1, 2008.  The plans submitted to our office should include audio or transcripts of the public hearings and statements of support from local officials.  The submission to DOJ was required to be sent by July 23, 2008 to give the counties sufficient time to respond to any requests for additional information.  Finally, after the election, the counties were required to submit reports to the Secretary of State providing information on how the election went administratively and the public’s reaction, if any.  In the end, only two counties—Erath and Lubbock---expressed interest in participating in the pilot program.  We believe that this does not reflect a lack of interest in countywide election precincts by county election officials, but that the particular challenges of the 2008 elections—the primary elections, massive increases in voter registration, the final implementation of the statewide voter registration system---caused many counties to hesitate to implement a new method of voting for the November 4, 2008 General Election.  Several counties that were initially interested in participating in the pilot expressed that they were reluctant to make any big changes in such a critical election year.

Erath County Pilot

Erath County has twenty regular county election precincts.  Under the pilot program, this was reduced to eleven countywide election precincts for the November general election.  According to the Honorable Gwinda Jones, the Erath County Clerk, the county selected its sites to provide convenient locations for both rural and city voters.  Specifically, the county kept all of its outlying polling places, both for voter convenience and in recognition that local political subdivisions outside the City of Stephenville might have elections on the November date.  The county held its election jointly with the local political subdivisions so a voter could vote in any of the local elections at any one of the eleven sites.

The County had five of the countywide election precincts in the county seat of Stephenville, including the Courthouse and a mix of public and private locations scattered throughout Stephenville.  Ms. Jones indicates that one of the benefits of the pilot program is that there were no significant delays at the precincts.  The longest wait for voters, according to Ms. Jones, was approximately 15 minutes.  To inform voters of the pilot program, the county ran notices explaining the countywide precinct process and the locations in the local newspaper.

The county solicited opinions on the program from its election judges and clerks, who indicated satisfaction with the countywide election precinct concept and suggest its use in future elections.  They were also satisfied with the county’s real-time voter registration system, which immediately updated a person as having voted when he or she is qualified to vote at one of the precincts.

The county also circulated a questionnaire for voters who used the countywide election precincts.  Voters who filled out the questionnaire overwhelmingly approved of the countywide precincts and wished to see its use continued in future elections.  Interestingly, according to the questionnaire, a majority of voters still used the polling place closest to their home.

The county also solicited post election comments from the local political subdivisions who participated in its joint election.  The City of Stephenville and the three school districts who participated included notes indicating their satisfaction with the countywide precincts.  The Erath Republican County Chair also stated that the pilot program was a success.  With that said, we should note that the Erath Democratic County Chair has expressed a general dissatisfaction with the pilot, but we have been unable to obtain specific comments from him for this report at the time of submission of this report.

Lubbock County Pilot

Lubbock County had participated in the 2006 pilot program, and its 2008 implementation of countywide precincts was built on its 2006 experiences.  The county has 69 county election precincts.  Recognizing the exceptional turnout that would take place in the November 4, 2008 General Election, the county only reduced its polling places to a total of 50.  The county appointed an advisory board consisting of the party chairs, representatives for Advocacy, Inc., local minority groups and staff from the county elections administrator’s office.  The advisory board assisted the elections administrator in determining the number of polling places and the best locations to encourage a high level turnout.  The county placed at least one polling place in each community in the county.  Similar to Erath County, Lubbock County held joint elections with school districts in the area, which allowed voters to vote at the countywide election precinct in all the elections for which they were entitled to vote.

Informing voters of the pilot program and its effect on the election was a clear priority of the Lubbock County elections administrator’s office.  The county hired a public relations firm to assist the county in publicizing the countywide precincts in radio, print, and television.  Additionally, the county manned an Election Day phone bank to guide voters to the nearest precinct and also used text messaging to contact voters with information on voting locations.

After the election, the county solicited comments from the members of its advisory board and the other political subdivisions that took part in the process.  Their opinions were uniformly positive on the pilot and express a desire to continue it into future elections.

Because the county did not reduce the number of precincts as much as permitted under HB 3105, and because the countywide precincts were fully staffed in anticipation of the historic turnout of the November 4, 2008 presidential election, the county determined that it probably did not achieve the savings it could have.  The county did have an increased turnout from the 2004 presidential election, with 97,534 voting for President in 2008 versus 93,151 voting in 2004.

Recommendations

Due to the limited county participation in 2008, the Secretary of State recommends that the program be reauthorized in the 81st Legislature and that the scope of the pilot include the possible November 2009 constitutional amendment election.  An “off-year” election such as the November 2009 election might be a better election for counties to experiment with the super precinct concept.  With data from a wider spectrum of counties, the Office of Secretary of State could make more informed recommendations to the 82nd Legislature for future permanent legislation.

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