A newly implemented change to election law is leaving a trail of shuttered early voting polling places across the state.
The eyeglasses settled on Larry Quisenberry’s head slightly shifted as his eyes went wide and his back straightened from the lolled position he held by the checkout counter at the Cow Palace Emporium.
His reaction came upon learning that the one day of early voting he and his neighbors previously enjoyed was going away.
Quisenberry has been loyal to the ballot box for more than two decades, voting in elections big and small. He typically casts his vote on Election Day — he likes to spend those Tuesdays sporting the “I Voted” sticker — but his job as a pilot car driver for oversized loads sometimes forces him to vote early.
Like in other small towns in rural Williamson County, he previously had at least one day available for early voting when a temporary polling place was set up at City Hall — located just off Main Street, not far past the black and white awning that hangs over the front of the homegoods store.
But much to his dismay, especially regarding his elderly neighbors, communities like Florence will have no early voting starting this November; the nearest early voting polling location will be more than 10 miles away.
“I think we ought to get every opportunity,” Quisenberry said. “We’re a small community, but I don’t know why we wouldn’t be entitled to what others have.”
Florence’s one day of early voting was a casualty of a newly implemented Texas election law that lawmakers said they pushed to curb abuse in school bond elections. But the law was crafted broadly enough to upend a long-established practice of moving polling places during the early voting period to reach as many voters as possible near where they live, work or go to school. With a Nov. 5 constitutional election looming, the new law has left a trail of shuttered early voting polling places across the state, prompting unease among election officials about how far it'll go in limiting access to early voting in next year’s high-stakes election.
In Williamson County alone, the impact of the new law — one championed by Republican lawmakers — has reached the rural stretch of the Central Texas county and Southwestern University in Georgetown.
Campus officials used their turn at a one-day temporary polling place in 2018 to help turn out more than half of the university's nearly 1,500 students, according to Emily Sydnor, an assistant professor of political science who has spent her four years at Southwestern looking for ways to engage students in the electoral process.
She knows well the difference proximity can make, and she rattles of the numbers easily: There’s a 66% likelihood that someone will vote if their polling place is a hundredth of a mile away. The likelihood that someone without a car will vote drops to 42% if they have to walk two-thirds of a mile.
For the first and second-year students required to live on Southwestern’s campus, the nearest early voting location is now just more than a mile away.
“We all have an obligation to an extent to exercise our civic duty … and sometimes that’s going to mean putting in a little effort,” Sydnor said. “I don’t think that should come down to, ‘Do I walk across campus, or do I find a way to get to a place a mile away?’”
Putting the brakes on “rolling polling”
This year’s wave of closures started with an effort to curb what critics call “rolling polling,” in which entities running elections may frequently rotate early voting sites to target specific voters.
For years, election officials across the state used temporary polling places to offer a day or two of early voting in places where it wasn’t practical or cost-efficient to maintain a site open for all of the early voting period. Some counties used the practice to reach smaller communities or to spend time at various college campuses within a county; others used mobile voting sites to bring a day of early voting to hospitals, government buildings that can’t host a permanent site, and senior living facilities where residents face mobility issues.
But that flexibility resulted in the “selective harvesting of targeted voters,” particularly in school bond elections where voting sites were set up in school facilities, state Rep. Greg Bonnen argued during this year’s legislative session. The Friendswood Republican offered House Bill 1888 as a solution that would do away with temporary voting sites by requiring polling places to remain open for all 12 days of early voting.
“The flexibility of polling locations was designed to accommodate more voters near their homes or workplaces, but some subdivisions of the state have abused this flexibility and targeted desirable voting populations at the exclusion of others,” Bonnen told the House Elections Committee as it considered his legislation in March.
Asked about the effect the bill would have on early voting, a lawyer with the secretary of state’s office told the committee it would “limit substantially” the use of temporary voting sites that were being used for legitimate purposes.
The Texas Democratic Party asked the committee to draw up an exemption for November general elections. The Texas Association of Election Administrators, led by Williamson County’s election administrator Chris Davis, warned against the change because it would limit the use of temporary voting sites to reach far-flung communities. Democrats offered up amendments in hopes of exempting rural communities, college campuses and long-term care facilities.
But the legislation that made it out of both the House and Senate with virtually unanimous Republican support didn't address those requests. Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law soon after the end of the legislative session.
The local election officials who have to implement the changes were left questioning why lawmakers didn’t more narrowly tailor it to the issues proponents raised about school bond elections.
“If someone in your office does something bad, don’t send everyone in the office an email. Send the email to that person,” said Heather Hawthorne, the Chambers County Clerk who opposed the change.
Counties brace for impact
Months later, the warnings of polling place closures are becoming reality in urban and rural counties, cutting across political lines. And local election officials are preparing for even more fallout in 2020, when the expected higher turnout will strain them to provide increased access to early voting.
This November, voters in several other small Williamson County towns will no longer have access to early voting in their communities where there aren’t enough voters for local officials to justify the cost of keeping a location open for 12 days.
In Lubbock County, where election officials used temporary polling places for more than 16 years, local leaders will have to coordinate buses and vans to drive elderly voters to the polls now that they’re losing the mobile voting sites at retirement homes and assisted living centers.
In Cameron County, election officials are having to choose some towns over others as they consolidate early voting locations. Remi Garza, the county’s elections administrator, said they plan to keep polling places for all 12 days of early voting in small, rural communities where a week of early voting would typically be enough to serve the voters living there but will have fewer locations in Brownsville, the county's largest city.
And instead of having a temporary site at three colleges for a full week of early voting, Cameron County officials in 2020 will likely opt to keep just one for the entire early voting period at whichever campus they believe will see the most foot traffic.
“The best way to look at it is that previous to HB 1888, each county had the discretion to work toward what was best in serving its entire community,” said Garza. “The one size fits all makes it extremely difficult.”
Neither Bonnen nor state Sen. Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican who shepherded the bill through the Senate, responded to requests for comment for this article. During the legislative session, Bonnen emphasized that counties didn’t necessarily have to close temporary polling places or do away with mobile voting sites. They just needed to keep them open for the entire early voting period.
But making those polling places permanent has proved difficult for financial and logistical reasons.
In Travis County — where the local Republican Party has acknowledged the change could diminish their turnout — keeping the 60 temporary or mobile locations used in recent elections open for all of early voting would cost an additional $1 million per election, according to county clerk Dana Debeauvoir.
Even if counties could afford to keep those polling places open, some county officials said they wouldn’t have enough election workers to staff them. El Paso County wouldn’t even have sufficient machines, according to Lisa Wise, the county’s elections administrator.
And in some places, finding building space for eight hours of early voting over 12 days is a pipe dream. El Paso County previously used recreation centers for some temporary polling places, but those types of public spaces are in high demand and often used by people who are socioeconomically disadvantaged.
“We can either vote or have senior programs. We can’t do both,” Wise said.
Last year, Tarrant County split its early voting between six universities and colleges. Going into 2020, local officials said there isn’t enough money in the current budget to make those sites permanent.
The development felt like “a punch in the gut” to campus organizations that have worked to register as many students as possible and relished in having an on-campus site, especially for working students, said Gavin Mitchell, the student body president at the University of Texas at Arlington.
“To put it simply: those students will no longer be able to vote,” Mitchell said.
BY ALEXA URA