New state law prohibits mobile voting, causes 'substantial' loss to Travis County

Mobile voting locations were used to reach rural, senior and student voters. These campaign signs were posted on The University of Texas at Austin campus during the 2018 gubernatorial election.

Mobile voting locations were used to reach rural, senior and student voters. These campaign signs were posted on The University of Texas at Austin campus during the 2018 gubernatorial election.

A new state law that took effect Sept. 1 and prohibits the use of temporary polling places will hinder voter turnout in Travis County, local officials said.

“Our loss is substantial,” Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said. “This was an inexpensive, cost-effective way to meet a lot of rural voters where we didn’t have enough voter density to justify a full-time polling location.”

In use since at least 2000, mobile voting—the use of temporary polling places during the early voting period—had grown into a robust program in Travis County.

During the 2018 gubernatorial elections, there were 61 mobile voting locations, most of which catered to rural residents and senior communities. During the 2016 presidential election, there were 68 such locations.

“[W]e can make a limited number of mobile early voting teams more effective by moving them around to extend the franchise to more voters than we would be able to using limited resources,” wrote Ronald Morgan, Travis County deputy county clerk, in testimony submitted to the Senate State Affairs Committee in May.

State Rep. Greg Bonnen sponsored the law, which he told members of the House elections committee was intended to prevent the abuse of mobile voting locations, particularly during school bond elections when temporary polls would sometimes be set up on school campuses as a way to boost turnout.

But local officials and advocates urged state lawmakers to rewrite the bill to focus on the issue of school bond elections while preserving mobile voting.

“We inevitably have territories and areas on the fringes of the county that don’t fiscally warrant a full-time early voting site,” said Chris Davis, Texas Association of Elections Administrators legislative liaison, to members of the House elections committee March 11.

Travis County was able to offer 61 mobile voting sites in 2018 for around $50,000, DeBeauvoir said. To comply with the new law and turn all of those sites into full-time polling locations would cost the county $1 million, per an analysis DeBeauvoir’s office conducted.

State Democrats raised concerns that the law was intended to suppress voter turnout.

“Republicans know Texas is changing; that’s why they’re trying to change the rules to make it harder for seniors, the disability community, college students, rural Texans and survivors of natural disasters to cast their ballot,” said Manny Garcia, Texas Democratic Party executive director, in a May 22 statement.

The Nov. 5 election is the first one since the law took effect.

In response, Travis County has introduced two new early voting locations to serve rural voters in the western and southeastern parts of the county and also expanded its mega polling centers to include the Millennium Youth Complex and Ben Hur Shrine Center.

“It’s very difficult to replace this program,” DeBeauvoir said. “In fact, it’s not replaceable.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify who sponsored the bill.
By Emma Freer
Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her beat includes the Travis County Commissioners Court and local business news. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.


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