Hays County commissioners have agreed to appoint a citizens election commission to advise the county on polling locations and review changes that may need to be made after ballots are cast.

The idea of a citizens commission was raised several times during the course of two public comment periods and one special workshop over where vote centers, which are part of the new countywide polling system, will be located.

During the weeks of debate before the list of polling locations was approved Aug. 20, both county residents and officials said that there had not been enough opportunity for public input.

County Judge Ruben Becerra said at the Sept. 3 Commissioners Court meeting that he and Commissioner Walt Smith spent several hours over the course of the last week defining the mission, goals and general composition of the new citizens commission.

“We have genuinely tried our very best to include everyone,” Becerra said.

Becerra said the group’s mission would be “to serve Hays County as an independent advisory commission in the area of effectively identifying voting center locations and addressing locations after each election period.”

In addition to considering where people need polling locations, the commission will “evaluate the distribution and effectiveness of the early voting polls and vote centers and recommend changes as needed,” Becerra said.

Both Becerra and Smith said the commission’s mandate is intentionally narrow and specific. 

“Statutorily it’s very clear what our [County] Elections Commission does, what our elections board does, and this is something that’s outside that realm,” Smith said. “The only real authority that we can give these folks is a recommendation of polling locations.”

The citizens commission will be required to meet at least twice per year but may decide to meet more often; it will also elect its own leadership.

Though specific people have not yet been appointed, the outline developed by Becerra, Smith and county staff did define what groups will be represented and by how many people. 

The commission will be composed of: one representative from each of four school districts, including Hays CISD, San Marcos CISD, Wimberley ISD and Dripping Springs ISD; one representative from each of the cities of San Marcos, Kyle, Buda, Dripping Springs and Wimberley; the chairs of the Hays County Democratic and Republican parties; representatives from both major party organizations at Texas State University; one rural community representative; one disabled community representative; one person from the county League of Women Voters; and a total of 10 citizen representatives, with two appointed by each commissioner and the county judge.

The idea behind giving each commissioner two general appointments is to help tailor the commission to the needs of each individual precinct, Smith said. 

“In other words, for my precinct, if I look at the list and I say, ‘Well there’s one rural representative in our precinct, but maybe depending on who was appointed by other members of the Commissioners Court, I need to appoint somebody from Henley or Driftwood or somebody to represent those rural interests,” Smith said. “But I’ll have that opportunity with two positions in order to address any needs that I see that aren’t met by the overall membership.”

The designated rural and disabled community representatives will be appointed, Smith said, ideally by consensus of the commissioners.

One major issue under discussion at the Aug. 27 meeting where the citizens commission was first discussed was whether to appoint elected officials or to appoint staff members from the government bodies with elected officials. 

“If you pick one elected official per entity, that doesn’t mean the other elected officials agree with that person,” Commissioner Lon Shell said at the time. “The staff is more cognizant of making sure that everyone is up to speed with the right information.”

Becerra remained in favor of appointing elected officials at the end of the Aug. 27 meeting, but said in the intervening week he had heard Smith’s argument that an at large City Council member, for example, might be tempted to steer polling location choices toward sites favorable to themselves.

“Commissioner Smith brought up a good point, and I said, ‘You’re right,’” Becerra said. “Your point is stronger than mine on that front.’”

Linda Calvert, president of the Hays County League of Women Voters—the organization Becerra has credited with first mentioning the idea of a citizens commission—spoke before the vote to say she supports the creation of the new group, but also that she hoped it would address issues beyond the location of vote centers.

“We really think this is of vital interest to the citizens,” Calvert said. “Because besides the placement of vote centers, there are a number of improvements that need to be made to the actual process of voting.”