This editorial was first published in the Amarillo Globe-News. Guest editorials don’t necessarily reflect the Denton Record-Chronicle’s opinions.
A number of Texas counties are looking to voting centers as a way to make a sometimes cumbersome process easier for everyone as election officials across the state ramp up for what is expected to be massive turnout for the 2020 presidential contest a little more than a year from now.
A story from The Texas Tribune explored the pros and cons of voting centers, pointing out that Lubbock County was an early adopter of the practice, rolling them out in 2006. In the ensuing years, more than 50 Texas counties also use voting centers, which are replacing the precinct-based approach with which voters are likely more familiar.
The challenge with the precinct system, at least in the most recent elections, is voters going to the wrong location and leaving without casting a placeholder ballot that would record a failed effort to vote, according to the Tribune story. The result was thousands of votes being thrown out. With voting centers, people can cast their ballot at any location regardless of where they live in a county.
The prospect of removing precinct boundaries should provide more people the opportunity to participate in the process. Voters no longer would have to worry about whether they were in the “right” place.
It seems a step in the right direction, but election officials will need to be cautious in how they embrace voting centers because the next step often is to close or consolidate polling places in the name of fiscal responsibility.
In Texas, which has a less-than-stellar voting rights history, some fear the first polling places targeted could be in areas with predominantly Hispanic, black and lower-income residents, suppressing voter participation among segments of the population that historically vote in elections at lower rates than whites and more affluent Texans, according to the Tribune story.
Such fears have their basis in fact. According to a report from the Secretary of State, more than 150 voting site closures or consolidations can be directly linked to implementing vote centers. Under law, counties have the leeway to reduce polling locations to 65% in the first election where vote centers are used and 50% after.
“Our concern is to make sure that we increase the likelihood of people voting,” James Douglas, head of the NAACP branch in Houston, told Harris County commissioners earlier this year. “This ought not be about money.”
According to the Tribune, more than 50 counties had been approved to launch vote centers at the time of the 2018 general election. Texas is among more than a dozen states that allows the practice.
The priority across the state should be to make participation accessible to all voters, which should mean taking a long look at why specific polling places might be closed or consolidated.
While turnout and cost will be part of the consideration, they should not drive decisions, nor should proximity be an overriding factor as numerous voters across Texas have mobility challenges.
“It really, truly will be the responsibility of the county officials making those decisions to make sure it’s not done in a way that’s discriminatory,” Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in the Tribune story.
No one wants to see their vote disqualified, and the state should do all it can to make the process as smooth as possible for everyone. This should be done in a thoughtful and prudent manner that gives weight to all factors.