Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved a request June 4 from its county clerk’s office to apply to the Texas Secretary of State for “successful” status for the recently implemented program that allows voters to cast their ballots at any polling place in the county.
The approval comes two months after Texas Secretary of State David Whitley approved the county’s application to participate in the program. Previously, Harris County voters were restricted to an assigned polling location in their voting precinct on election day, although they were permitted to vote at any location during early voting.
A county can apply for successful status after one election under the program and may continue to implement the program in future elections, according to the Secretary of State website. The county commissioners court was required to hold a public hearing as part of the application and provide a recording of that hearing to the Secretary of State, which will be reviewed to determine whether the county has met code requirements.
Harris County is the largest county in the U.S. to implement the program. More than 50 other counties across the state also participate.
At the hearing, which was part of the June 4 meeting, community members spoke positively about the program’s results in the May 4 joint election. However, several residents also brought up areas for future program improvement, ranging from accessibility and equity issues to shortcomings with web connectivity at polling places.
As voters can now attend any polling place to cast their ballots, former election judge Rita Huggler expressed concern over whether officials would keep all existing polling places open for use. In other counties that have adopted the program, the number of polling places reduced by 40%, she said.
“While change is inevitable, I’m concerned that this change may not be in the best interest of all voters,” Huggler said. “A voter’s polling place is a number and not a place, and I communicate that to voters every chance I get.”
Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he “got heartburn” at the idea of closing any polling location, which Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle agreed with. Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman said during the hearing that if the county was to consider consolidating or closing any polling place locations, that decision would need to go through the court for a vote first.
Local political activist Dee Scott commended the county clerk’s office for their expediency in implementing the countywide polling centers, but added that there is still work to be done to make the voting process equitable for anyone that is not a member of the “dominant, controlling parties in our city politics as well as at a national level.” This program is a step in the right direction, she said.
Another shortcoming observed in the May election was the power of the web servers at some polling locations. Ed Johnson, who said he has worked in Harris County elections for nearly 20 years and helped create the existing e-poll book system, pointed out that with only 4% of the population turning out for the May election, it was not a proper test of the new system in terms of its efficiency for the November general election, which typically has a bigger turnout.
Johnson added that because more than half of polling locations in the county are located in schools, the school districts often restrict cellular data capabilities on campuses to prevent students from abusing the network. He encouraged the county to work with districts to resolve this issue, since it affects the iPads used to register votes.
A team from the Center for Civic Leadership at Rice University conducted a study examining the efficacy of voting centers in the May election, and several of those team members spoke during the public hearing. Voter turnout data for the May election will be compared with turnout data from previous elections by the Secretary of State to help determine the program’s success, per the Secretary of State website.
The team presented basic findings during the meeting and stated that in-depth results would be presented to the court to determine the best course of action prior to the November election.
The court also heard from community members affected by the ITC and KMCO chemical fires on June 4 before unanimously passing a resolution in support of the men and women, as well as the businesses, that were affected by the incidents.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said that the court urges Rohm & Haas Texas Inc. to engage in good faith negotiations for fair contracts for the United Steelworkers members in Deer Park.
“This is about safety on both sides,” Garcia said.
Cagle said the resolution would be more fitting with added language about supporting businesses, as well as supporting individual men and women, which he said supports the health of the relationship between the labor force and the Port of Houston.
“I want to encourage this resolution, but I also want to encourage our businesses to know that we’re not hostile to them,” Cagle said. “We want everybody to work together.”
The resolution was carried unanimously after the amendment was made.
A full video of the meeting is available online. The commissioners court will meet next on June 25.