BELTON — Showing up at the wrong precinct polling place on Election Day may soon be history in Bell County.
The Commissioners Court and local political party leaders are considering a switch to countywide vote centers for the 2020 election.
Currently, residents who cast their ballots on Election Day must go to their precinct polling location. There were 46 polling locations in the 2018 election.
By switching to countywide vote centers, residents could cast their ballot at any polling location on Election Day. This would be similar to the county’s early voting period during which voters can cast a ballot at any polling location.
“The ease of voting and the accessibility of voting across the county is something that ought to be a goal and an objective for us — to try to enhance both of those areas,” Bell County Judge David Blackburn said, throwing his support behind the vote centers proposal. “There are certainly costs associated with that, though. Just short of a million dollars it looks like to get there.”
That $1 million would be spent on 150 ExpressVotes, a touchscreen-based machine that uses paper ballots with electronic voting; additional licenses for electronic voter registration software and laptops to use it at polling locations; and additional ballot scanners.
Bell County rolled out new election equipment in the November 2018 election. The new voting machines cost $1.4 million, and were intended to begin the transition to Election Day vote centers.
Beyond the estimated $1 million needed to purchase additional voting equipment, Bell County must meet several state requirements and be approved to consolidate voting locations into vote centers by the Texas Secretary of State’s office.
There are three main requirements to consolidate precinct polls into vote centers.
One, the county must use an electronic voting system.
Two, use an electronic voter registration list that allows for instant verification.
Three, hold a public hearing so voters, organizations that represent minority populations and other interested entities can voice their opinion on the proposal.
Along with the trio of requirements, the Secretary of State’s office requires counties to file a one-page document stating it plans to consolidate polling locations. That document must be filed ahead of a county submitting its application.
The application must affirm that the county meets the minimum requirements and explain the methodology for how the countywide vote center locations will be selected.
The Secretary of State’s office has not published the 2020 deadline dates for counties to apply for consolidated vote centers.
“You must have the approval of the Secretary of State’s office in order to get into this program and consolidate polling places,” Blackburn said. “That’s what it authorizes: Consolidate polling places up to 65 percent of the current number of polling places you have in the first year, and then in the second year, thereafter, you go down to 50 percent but not more than that. That’s the Readers’ Digest of what it’ll do.”
With 46 voting locations, Elections Administrator Melinda Luedecke said the county could consolidate down to 32 vote centers in the first year.
“In the second year, the most we can go down to is 50 percent, which would be 24 and that’s where it stops,” Blackburn said.
“Until redistricting,” Luedecke quickly added.
Redistricting will occur after the 2020 Census. Luedecke estimated the number of voting precincts in Bell County could jump to around 70.
Why switch to vote centers?
The Bell County Republican and Democratic parties support countywide voting centers.
Democratic Party chairman Chris Rosenberg visited with officials in Williamson and McLennan counties to discuss their vote centers. She said they told her reaction from voters has been positive.
“I think in Bell County — where we are more transient — this is going to be a huge lift to voters in the county,” Rosenberg said. “It’s heartbreaking especially when those voters are in the military, for them to not be able to cast a vote in this county is a shame.”
In the last election, Luedecke said more than 800 provisional ballots were cast.
“A vast majority of them were people in the wrong precinct,” the elections administrator said. “At 6:45 p.m., you can’t make it to Killeen from Temple and be able to cast your ballot.”
Luedecke echoed Rosenberg about how vote centers would be better for Bell County’s transient population.
“My thing is the people who live in Killeen and work at Scott & White (in Temple) or vice versa for people who live in Temple and work on Fort Hood … you can go by any of the locations you pass by on your way to or from work and vote,” Luedecke said.
Additionally, Luedecke said her office would have more freedom to set up polling locations at more visible sites, such as grocery stores.
Rosenberg’s Republican counterpart, Nancy Boston, said this is the right direction for Bell County.
“With this, we won’t have to recruit as many election personnel … and I think having established polling locations would be a whole lot better than every election cycle we change them,” Boston said. “That would be good.”
Bell County Clerk Shelley Coston — who, up until 2013, ran elections here — was supportive of the switch.
“There are so many tasks that go into the functional process of putting an election together,” she said. “Anything that you can do to make it simpler or more accommodating is a positive because it’s so much work.”
The Commissioners Court still needs to cobble together an estimated $1 million to buy new voting equipment.
Bell County Auditor Tina Entrop said $300,000 already has been earmarked for voting equipment. On top of that, she said, there is another $350,000 in the Technology Services Department’s budget.
“It’s going to be a really good decision, I think,” Commissioner Russell Schneider said, backing countywide vote centers while also stressing the need to find funding sources. “I think we can make it work.”
Schneider said the Commissioners Court may need to dip into the county’s fund balance to cover the remaining cost of the new voting equipment. The current budget has a fund balance of $41.6 million.
Blackburn outlined the next steps for the county as it considers countywide vote centers: Get answers from the Secretary of State’s office; determine a funding strategy for new voting equipment; and setting a timeline for the possible switch.