Countywide polling program to begin in May
Williamson County voters will no longer need to travel to their assigned polling location to cast a ballot. Beginning with the May elections, the county will begin operating voting centers, which will allow county residents to vote at any location.
County commissioners approved the countywide polling place program at their Feb. 19 meeting, and an application was sent to the state Feb. 27, eventually gaining approval by the Texas secretary of state's office.
County Elections Administrator Rick Barron said vote centers could help with voter convenience and reduce the number of election workers, provisional ballots and expenses. The program would not remove voting centers from rural areas.
"It's an efficient way to conduct voting now," Barron said. "People can vote where it's convenient for them."
The transition to vote centers also means a change to all-electronic voting, Barron said.
In past elections, Williamson County had almost entirely switched to all-electronic voting with a few precincts offering paper ballots, he said.
Barron said he anticipates more people voting early at the new centers, which could help reduce wait times for election day voting.
"Some people would hold out until election day because they wanted to vote on a paper ballot," he said, "So we may have an increase in early voting."
Paper mail-in ballots would still be available for voters age 65 and older, disabled individuals and those traveling outside the U.S. during early voting and on election day.
In the November election, approximately 75 percent of voters used electronic voting machines—65 percent during early voting and 10 percent on election day, Barron said.
Concerns over the accuracy of electronic voting were raised during two public hearings hosted by the Commissioners Court; however, Precinct 3 Commissioner Valerie Covey said the county has not had accuracy issues with electronic voting in the past.
"If we have an issue with the accuracy of the vote, we have a problem already," Covey said.
Barron said the county's electronic voting machines are equipped with three independent memory sources that allow election officials to tally the votes two other ways if one part of the machine fails.
"Electronic voting is the safest and most accurate way to vote," he said, adding that the machines help streamline tallying votes. "There is a misconception that we don't have a paper trail."
The county has about 850 electronic voting machines and 145 check-in computers, Barron said. He said he hopes to purchase more computers this summer and replace about 45 computers that are aging. Overall, Barron said the county needs a total of about 235 check-in computers, but it currently has enough for the May election.
Leander resident Karen Carter, who also serves as the Williamson County Democratic Party chairwoman, said she is not convinced vote centers will be convenient because of the reduced number of voting locations.
Carter, who said she was speaking as a voter and not a representative of the Democratic Party, also served on the county's vote center committee and said she hopes to ensure that people in lower-income areas and with transportation issues would not be disenfranchised as the number of polling places are reduced.
Bill Fairbrother, the Williamson County Republican Party chairman who also served on the committee, said he thought the program showed promise.
In the May elections, local jurisdictions, which can include cities, school districts and municipal utility districts, having elections will contract with the county to hold the election. Polling locations are selected based on where those jurisdictions are, Barron said.
"We don't use the same methodology to choose the May [polling locations] because the jurisdictions contract with us," he said.
For the May 11 election, 21 locations throughout the county have been selected to house the vote centers. Eleven other locations in Travis County will also be used as vote centers for elections in Pflugerville and Leander ISDs, Barron said, adding that any Williamson County voter would be able to cast a ballot at those locations.
Barron said locations used in November's election could include some of the same locations as well as a few others, but because it is a constitutional amendment election, there may be fewer polling locations than in the 2012 presidential election.
"We're going to continue to work on vote center locations," Covey said, adding that the May election locations chosen have been used as polling locations in previous elections.
While there may be fewer locations, Barron said, the county plans to have more poll workers at each center, especially for larger locations.
"We've seen counties reduce overall costs, but first we want to have adequate staff and have enough equipment so that it is successful," Covey said.
House Bill 758, approved by the Texas Legislature in 2005, allows counties to offer vote centers instead of precinct polling locations. Unlike a precinct polling location that requires voters to be registered at that location, vote centers are open to any registered voter. Vote centers, however, are not currently permitted in primary elections.
Since the law's passage, 11 counties, including Travis County, have begun using vote centers, said Rich Parsons, director of communications for the Texas secretary of state.
Once a county operates vote centers for the first time, it can reapply to continue vote centers if the operation has been deemed successful. Although no county has been viewed as unsuccessful by the secretary of state, there are some that have not continued with the program, Parsons said.
Travis County offered vote centers to its residents for the first time in a pilot program for the November 2011 election. Because of that election's success, the county offered a full vote center program in the November 2012 general election.
"I think it was very successful with voters," Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said. "Voters loved it."