Yesterday, County Clerk Diane Trautman and her team invited a few of us to her office for an overview of the voting center concept and a demonstration of how a joint primary would work using voting centers. Voting centers are simply poll locations that allow any registered voter in Harris County to vote rather than requiring voters to vote in their designated precincts on election day. If you think about it, it is simply an expansion of the way early voting is conducted in that you can and have been able to vote at any early voting location for years. Without problems.
Back in February, we had a guest post about this subject. There were several concerns at that time, including:
- No institutional knowledge at the Clerk’s office because of the 2018 election
- Problems with instantaneous communication between voting centers
- Up to a 50% reduction in polling locations, resulting in long lines on election day
The first bullet point has been addressed with the special elections in May, which served as a test run of sorts. As noted in the Houston Chronicle and confirmed to me yesterday by Dr. Trautman, the County Clerk’s office had to reapply to the Secretary of State’s office to continue using voting centers in the future. Dr. Trautman is confident that the approval will be forthcoming.
As for the second point, it was also addressed during the trial run as no problems cropped up with the communication system and no voter was able to vote twice. Former County Clerk Stan Stanart is quoted in that same Houston Chronicle article taking credit for the ability of the modified iPads to communicate without problems. The Secretary of State’s office also confirmed that the machines would be able to communicate.
The third point, a reduction in polling locations, is not happening either, at least not for this election. Michael Winn, Administrator of Elections for the County Clerk, told us that in November there will be approximately 740 polling locations, similar to past general elections. This was disappointing to me as I would hope that in the future they will in fact be cut in half. I can count about 12 polling locations within 5 miles of my usual location. That is far too much redundancy and is a waste of resources. Which would result in longer lines? A bunch of small locations with machines unused at the majority of them or fewer locations with more machines available at each? I think the former. I’m very much in the minority on that, however, because both D’s and R’s want the neighborhood locations to remain.
Now for the trickier part.
Joint Primary Elections
After the discussion about voting centers in general, we were given a demonstration of how a joint primary would work in practice. I wish that I had taken pictures of the entire setup because they put a lot of effort into the demo.
We entered a room set up just like I would set up my poll. There was an information kiosk and a table with one Democratic and one Republican election judge running the election.
There were three ballot tables, each with one Republican and one Democratic worker. At these stations, you give them your driver’s license (or other identification), it is scanned and then the iPad is flipped to face you displaying a somewhat private screen to choose which primary you wish to vote in.
In my case, I touched the Republican button, which brought up this screen:
Because I left the image as is it looks like it is upside down because the iPad is facing the voter, not the two election judges. In other words, they cannot see which primary you chose to vote in. The iPad is then rotated towards the judges, where it is scanned and a ballot access slip is printed. Unfortunately, I threw my ballot access slip away. It looks much the same as the current ballot access slip you receive with a number that you enter on the eSlate to get your ballot up. The only difference is that it has a line on it indicating which primary you chose to vote in. After getting your ballot access slip, you move to an eSlate machine, enter your code and up pops your ballot. The ballot is customized to your precinct regardless of which voting center you choose anywhere within Harris County. Pretty cool, eh?
Well, not so fast. I don’t know what most Democrats think about a joint primary but I do know what some Republicans think about it. Here is a quote from Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson:
Harris County Republican Party Chairman Paul Simpson said Texas law allows parties to run their own primary elections, and he is reluctant to cede that role to the county clerk.
“The Democrat county clerk’s proposed joint primary elections would empower the bureaucrats and, worse, let one party’s workers run the other party’s primary election that selectsits candidates, running the risk of disenfranchising, inconveniencing, and confusing voters,” Simpson said in a statement.
In addition to that, I reached out to Republican election ‘guru’ who had this to say when I asked what an objection to a joint primary would be:
The voter chooses a party on the iPad and the election clerk can not see what the voter is doing. But the clerk will print the access slip. This access slip will have your party and precinct number on it. The clerk can cancel the slip and have the voter redo their party choice.
In 2018 the Republican Party moved the polling locations to a different room/building from the Dem’s in minority areas. The turnout in the Rep primary increased in polls that were in separate rooms.
One other objection is probably going to be this: who is actually running the voting center? I didn’t think to ask that question yesterday. Will it be the Democratic election judge because of the 2018 election results in Harris County? If so, I can see Paul’s point above in a theoretical sense. I have asked for clarification on this and will update it when I receive an answer. (see update below)
Remember, any joint primary must have the approval of both the Democratic and Republican Party chairs. And regardless of the merits of the proposal, it looks like Paul Simpson is already against it. And if that scenario about the minority polling locations really did happen, and I have to believe it did given the person that relayed that information, then there is no way that the HCRP Executive Committee is going to approve a joint primary. And I suspect that if the Democratic Party EC thought that there was a possibility of minority voters feeling intimidated in some areas, they would be against it as well.
As for me, I’m all for having a joint primary. The benefits far outweigh the possibility of a voter being intimidated because a clerk glanced at their ballot access slip. I’ve run the local precinct elections in my precinct for the past 10 years and I’ve never had a clerk try to influence a single voter in a general election and I can’t imagine that it would happen in a joint primary.
I first met Dr. Trautman when she was on the board of the Harris County Department of Education. Although we disagreed on a few things that the HCDE was doing at the time, I found her to be committed to the success of the students that the department was charged with serving. Obviously I voted for former County Clerk Stan Stanart and wish that he would have won that election but I have no worries that Dr. Trautman is some sort of biased political hack. She just isn’t. Take that for what it’s worth.
And a big thank you to County Clerk Dr. Trautman, Administrator of Elections Michael Winn, and Director of Voter Outreach & Communications Teneshia Hudspeth for setting this up and to each of the employees that helped with the demonstration. I have a much better and clearer understanding of the process now and I hope that I have relayed it accurately to our readers.
UPDATE ON PRESIDING JUDGE OF JOINT PRIMARY
I received the following from Michael Winn, Administrator of Elections:
Both party Judges will share equal responsibilities. However, the presiding judge will be the party that won the gubernatorial election in those precincts that make up that voting location.
HCRP Precinct Chair Ed Sarlis attended one of the earlier meetings and explained it this way:
- The Precincts in each County Commissioner district are organized as a group.
- The % of each party presiding at locations in the CC will be based on the number of precincts won by the party in the last Gov. Election. So if 60% of CC1 precincts were won by the Republican governor, then 60% of CC1 locations would have a Republican PJ. Which locations would be determined by the clerk’s office.
- The party will decide which Pct chairs to assign at which locations for PJ/AJ/clerk.
- They will not start reducing locations until after a few elections to see how voting patterns change with county wide ballots. (I would recommend waiting until after the 2020 general election as that will be the biggest turnout.) It does delay the cost savings but reduces the potential for surprises creating long lines.
- They plan to show wait times online to help voters self-regulate load balancing.