Early voting in Belton

A group of voters waits in line outside the Belton Annex on Friday.

As long lines persisted throughout Bell County, election officials continue to use less than 20 percent of the total available voting machines.

Out of the county’s 400 ExpressVotes voting machines, some of which are currently down for repair, county officials said they are currently only using 61 between its six early voting locations. This is slightly more than 15 percent of its total number.

Bell County interim Elections Administrator Matthew Dutton said the number of machines per location is fewer than in normal years due mainly to coronavirus measures and the department is unable to add more locations or move to larger venues.

“We can’t change spots, and we will be sued into oblivion if we try to move spots after having posting notice of it being there,” Dutton said. “As far as adding (locations) way back in late August and early September, when we do programming to get everything done and finalized, we can’t do anything additional. We would basically have to shut this election down and start from scratch with brand-new programming.”

Dutton said the county has already fit as many voting machines as they can at each site while still taking into account social distancing requirements.

In previous years, Dutton said, most polling locations would have between 12 and 15 voting machines. The Killeen Community Center usually is able to hold between 20 and 25 voting machines if the larger of two rooms is used.

This year’s early voting numbers remain fewer that those four years ago, despite its largest day this year, with the county seeing 6,427 voters Friday, compared to 5,469 voters on the same day in 2016.

This brings the total number of voters for first four days of early voting this year to 24,316 — 3,509 voters less than the 27,825 that voted in 2016.

Of the six locations, the Killeen Community Center — which has seen the highest turnout — received the most machines with 17 and three check-in kiosks.

Both the Belton Annex and the Killeen Annex were tied for the second most number of voting machines with 10, although Killeen had three kiosks while Belton had two.

The Temple Annex, in Bell County’s second largest city, tied with both Harker Heights and Salado for the fewest voting machines with 10 and two kiosks.

Despite the difference in polling machines, the Salado, Temple and Harker Heights locations have seen more voters than either the Belton or Killeen Annex locations.

The Killeen Community Center location, which has the most machines, has seen the most voters. It saw 3,094 voters on the first three days of voting, more than 1,000 voters more than the next highest location.

Bell County Republican Party Chairman Nancy Boston said that despite long lines she knew that there was not much the county could do to increase availability. She said that election officials had tried getting additional locations but it was hard with the additional week of early voting meaning another week of site occupancy.

While some residents have left voting locations due to long lines, Boston said she believed the early voting period this year would be about the same as in 2016.

“To me, it seems to me that people are standing in line and not staying 6 feet apart, so what difference would it make if they were in the polling location,” Boston said. “The polling locations have limits if you are going to be in there and have that 6-foot spacing.”

Belton residents Wayne and Carolyn Speer, who were less than halfway through the line at the Belton Annex, said Friday they had been waiting in line for about 30 minutes.

Wayne Speer, 73, said he and his wife, 69, had recently gotten back into town and wanted to vote as soon as possible even knowing that they would need to wait.

“We expected the line wouldn’t be quite so long,” he said. “I don’t know why they don’t have more machines. We’ve got the Expo — you could have put 500 machines in there and it would go quick.”

Retired judge Stan Pemberton said he had tried voting earlier in the week but was forced to leave the line after a long wait.

While he plans to vote once the lines die down, Pemberton said he feels sorry for those with jobs who can’t take multiple hours off work to go and vote. He also said he wished the county would help those waiting in line, especially those who are older or who are veterans and are unable to stand for long periods of time.

“I don’t know how professional people … doctors and all, are going to be able to devote a half of a day to vote,” Pemberton said. “In our sophisticated county, there has to be a better way. If not, we at least have to get some chairs, water and some tents if we are going to limit this thing to six voting places.”