Denton City Council members were reluctant to introduce anymore changes to polling locations after last year’s election jambalaya. Instead, they directed the city staff to keep things as much like last year as possible, while including polling locations on both college campuses.
During a work session Tuesday afternoon, City Secretary Rosa Rios reminded the council that the May election looms. She offered even more options for polling locations on both the north and south sides of town than last year. But council members demurred.
“My concern is using the same location as much as possible, so voters know,” said council member John Ryan.
Ryan was most concerned that, while voters in his district had the same two polling locations for the past two years, one of them won’t be available this spring.
“This is one the of the problems with choosing locations,” said Mayor Chris Watts. “Voters need consistency.”
How we got here
For at least a decade, according to a Denton Record-Chronicle review, Denton has used the same four polling locations for its municipal races, one in each district, on the uniform election day: North Branch Library and three recreation centers, Denia, North Lakes and Martin Luther King Jr.
Former council member Kathleen Wazny advocated for more polling locations four years ago, saying that the fast-growing city needed two polling locations in each district. The idea was that if the city made it easier to get to a polling location, more people would vote.
The council finally added one additional polling location in each district in 2018. But the increase in voter turnout on the uniform election day hasn’t materialized. In-person voting on election day 2019 was 42% less than in 2017.
Only District 1 has seen any kind of overall increase of in-person voting following the addition of a second polling location.
Denton voters may be driven more by issues than convenience. Many voters headed to the polls in 2017 when a controversial property tax freeze proposition was on the ballot.
But that doesn’t mean the location doesn’t matter. A District 2 polling location at Ryan High School in 2018 had to be moved to one of the school district’s annex buildings in 2019. Turnout cratered, dropping from 209 voters to 44 voters at that added location. Turnout at North Branch Library, the traditional location, remained robust.
During the work session, Ryan told Rios that if L.A. Nelson Elementary school isn’t available on election day, Guyer High School would be preferable to South Branch Library. In 2018, District 4 voters were split between Denia Recreation Center and Nelson Elementary. Ryan said he was concerned that voters would get confused if they were redirected again. In addition, the proposed alternate locations (one of which included a south-side church) might not serve the new division of precincts, increasing the likelihood that voters would get bounced around from year to year.
Finally, last year, council members agreed to four polling locations in District 3. The decision came in part to ease the political controversy from ethics questions in adding polling locations.
Three council members faced ethics complaints for the role they played in choosing last year’s polling locations. Council member Paul Meltzer was sanctioned for his participation in the vote that included a polling location on the University of North Texas campus, since his wife works there.
Meltzer recused himself from Tuesday’s conversation. But before he did, he said he was disappointed that the Board of Ethics had not yet found a way to provide an opinion on the matter. Last week, council member Jesse Davis proposed a compromise: removing the conflict for a council vote on polling locations, just like the vote on the annual budget.
Davis, too, was absent from Tuesday’s discussion. He is a Denton County employee. The county runs the elections.
The council isn’t expected to finalize its selection of polling locations until next month, when they officially call the election. But they directed Rios to prepare the same locations as last year, with the addition of locations at Texas Woman’s University and the University of North Texas.
A polling location at Robson Ranch retirement community will not be included on election day, in part because it is not available that day. However, the county will operate an early-voting location there, Rios said.
In addition to calling the election for a new mayor and for the two at-large seats currently held by council members Meltzer and Deb Armintor, the council must call a special election for Districts 1 and 2.
Council members Gerard Hudspeth and Keely Briggs resigned their seats (effective with election’s canvass) to run for mayor.