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Travis County to continue use of vote centers for most elections

Wednesday, May 23, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Travis County has decided to continue to employ an open polling place concept for most county-hosted elections. The approach, known as vote centers or super-precincts, allows county residents to cast their ballots at any one of Travis’ polling spots, as opposed to just a neighborhood precinct, on Election Day.

 

Travis County Commissioners unanimously endorsed the change. Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt sees the change as a move to enfranchise county voters. “(The) challenge for us is making voting as convenient as possible, to get as many people to the polls, particularly in this time of disenfranchisement,” she said.

 

Commissioners approved a pilot version of the vote center approach in advance of the 2011 elections. Their vote Tuesday served to extend the program.

 

To date, about 3.4 percent of the population of Travis County had voted in the early polling ahead of the May 29 Texas Primary. Those numbers echo the mere 10 percent of Austin that voted in city elections earlier this month.

 

The Texas law that permits vote center use also allows those jurisdictions to cut as many as half of the polling places from their Election Day rosters. However, as part of its 2011 pilot, Travis County’s election division reduced that number by only 10 percent – an action that brought the total number of polls from 189 down to 175.

 

Though the county’s election team had yet to figure out which polling places they’d use for this November’s election, they say that they will aim to employ as many of the traditional neighborhood spots as possible.

 

Indeed, County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir insists that the concept is not to cut vote centers, but rather to promote voting. DeBeauvoir  offered that, sometimes, “(voters) think they know the right polling place and they just get the boundary lines confused – or they don’t know about the boundary lines and they make a mistake.” She added that “what a vote center does is that it solves that problem.”

 

“It means that, even if they show up in the wrong place on Election Day, it’s still okay to vote right there,” DeBeauvoir added.

 

Still, skeptics remain. On Tuesday, Travis County Republican Party chair Rosemary Edwards again brought her concerns to the Commissioners. Chief among these was the idea that Travis County’s approach – which keeps most of the neighborhood polling spots in place as vote centers – is illegal. “I think we’re left with the interpretation that the law says that these vote centers are supposed to be consolidated precincts, not all precincts turned into vote centers,” said Edwards.

 

DeBeauvoir addressed a host of Edwards’ concerns in a May 10 memo to Commissioners. In it, she wrote that “Texas law related to countywide polling places has been amended several times since its adoption in 2005.

 

“Current law recognizes the need for a balanced approach that offers more choices to voters, retains neighborhood polling places, and provides cost containment options for election administrators,” she continued.

 

As written, the law prohibits the use of vote centers for primary elections. The City of Austin does not use the vote center method. DeBeauvoir hopes that the latter situation may change with the Commissioners’ adoption of the practice.

 

“That is a decision for the city to make,” she told Commissioners. “I am hopeful that once you make your decision, they will also do the same thing.”

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