The commissioners court oversees the Dallas County Elections Department, which determines all the precise details of our elections. It is spearheaded by Toni Pippins-Poole, who is retiring at the end of November. And after comments in the meeting, we’re guessing that Boys II Men’s “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye to Yesterday” won’t be on the karaoke machine at her retirement party.
With early voting starting in less than one week on Oct. 13 and the recent gift of a $15 million grant, there were a few loose ends to tidy up when the commissioners met Tuesday to discuss, among other things, logistics and details of the upcoming general election. County Judge Clay Jenkins was present via video-conference call, while commissioners Dr. Theresa Daniel, J.J. Koch, John Wiley Price and Dr. Elba Garcia were all in-person.
Following is a highlight reel, but you might want to pour a margarita first. Deep breaths.
Commissioner Koch raised the first red flag of the meeting. He recently spent time at the Dallas County Elections facility on Round Table Drive and doesn't like what he’s seeing. He joked that if he makes another appearance there, Pippins-Poole has threatened to quit.
A Backlog of Mail-In Applications
He first brought up the issue of a backlog of mail-in ballot applications. The elections department says that, as of Oct. 2, they’ve received 120,000 mail-in ballot applications and have sent out 54,000. During the meeting, Koch pressed Robert Heard, the assistant elections administrator, on the status of the remaining 60,000 and got no answer. Pippins-Poole chimed in via video-conference call to point out that about 15,000 of the applications were duplicates.
That still leaves three weeks-ish for upward of 50,000 applications to be processed and mailed out, then voters have to complete the ballots and put them back in the mail to be received by Nov. 3. All while still continually receiving more applications since the deadline to apply isn’t until Oct. 23. (Please don’t wait that long. There are better ways to vote. Hang tight.).
“Even if we have the best post office [indicating we potentially don’t], if they have that ballot in-hand in late October, they’re going to be in trouble,” Koch says.
Heard did not have an update on the backlog for the committee. We also reached out to him and have not heard back.
Warehouse and Logistics Two Weeks Behind
Another big concern of Koch’s, who is the only Republican on the commissioners court and really has no skin in this game since Dallas is historically Democratic, is a lack of organization at the facilities.
“They’re at least two weeks behind in logistics and warehouse,” he told the court.
In a call after the meeting, he explained that on a recent visit there was no order to the equipment and supplies. He’d expected to see bins assigned to locations and equipment organized. Machines that need to be keyed before being shipped aren't. And in terms of getting all the equipment out to the 450-plus polling locations on Nov. 3, he said there’s no logistical map for that yet.
In the meeting, Commissioner Daniel passed along a concern she’s heard from election judges about getting equipment to polling locations for Nov. 3. The equipment is so large that the workers are worried about loading and unloading these awkward machines in and out of their cars (yes, the workers have to take some of the equipment).
Heard told Daniel that they’re looking into it and may rent trucks.
“May.” They may rent trucks. Election Day is three weeks away.
Commissioners Price and Alba tried their best to assuage concerns, repeatedly saying there is a plan.
“I don’t know where this is coming from,” Price said. “Seven days a week people are working on this from everything from PPE and distribution. … My point is, I’m dealing with logistics. I’m still looking at logistics.”
Price pointed to wanton misinformation among the public that is causing problems. (We’ve sent more than a dozen emails to the elections department requesting information over the past four weeks and have never gotten a single answer. On phone calls, we get crickets, so the lack of information is at the election’s department’s own doing.)
Heard also wants to assure everyone they are not behind.
“A plan is not the execution,” Koch snapped back at one point. “I’m concerned about the execution. I’m still not confident about our mail-in ballot operations and still very, very concerned about Election Day.”
Daniel pushed Heard for reassurance that they’re ready for this election.
Heard explained that when considering COVID, a heated election, management changes, security issues and political differences among people, "we’re certainly not behind. We are still progressing, we are still going strong and we’re determined to make sure none of these things stand in the way of a good voting experience for our voters.”
Early Voting is Key to Avoid a "Disaster"
Koch believes that early voting is pretty secure. There will be 60 locations around Dallas County and voters can vote at ANY of those locations, not just in their precinct.
Early voting locations will be open daily from Oct. 13 through Oct. 31, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. except for Sundays when locations are open 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. The one thing everyone agrees on is that the best way to avoid a chaotic Election Day is to vote early. Due to the elimination of straight-ticket voting, fewer polling locations and a pandemic, Jenkins went so far as to imply it will be a disaster if, like the 2016 election, Dallas waited until Nov. 3 to cast a ballot.
"If we have 40 or 42% of people voting on Election Day like we have in the past, then that's just going to be a disaster and you're going to have tremendously long lines, people leaving," Jenkins pointed out when the discussion of a promotional campaign aimed at early voting came up.
(Jenkins actually had that number flipped; 58% of voters cast a ballot on Election Day in 2016 according to state data.)
People Screaming, People Crying
Pippins-Poole’s tenure at the elections department has been dinged by controversies. As she approaches her retirement date of Nov. 30, the air is thick with tension.
Koch told the commission there is "a lot of discord" in the elections office.
“It used to be that a couple of people would share concerns, but now a lot are. Her employees are completely burnt out. They’re in full revolt. She’s screaming at them. People are crying. But, they know they can’t quit because ...” Koch said in a phone call.
He was implying that elections workers aren’t bailing on us at the 11th hour.
Hopefully, they can push through the next few weeks. Maybe send some Tiff’s Treats.
With Pippins-Poole officially set to retire Nov. 30, interviews are supposedly taking place. An elections commission will choose her replacement; that group is made up of Jenkins, County Clerk John Warren, Tax Aassessor-Collector John Ames, Dallas County Democratic party chair Carol Donovan and Republican chair Rodney Anderson.
They’re meeting today to discuss the candidate pool. Three votes are required to hire a new person for this position.
Koch says, “I don’t care if it’s the biggest purple-haired liberal from Oregon, it just needs to be someone who can kick ass. Competence matters.”
We’ll keep you posted on the progress of her replacement.
In these final days leading up to the election, there is some hope. A big effort is being put into an outreach campaign to inform voters on how, when and where to vote. More than $2 million from a recent grant has been tagged for mail, phone, digital, radio and TV advertising.
Barbara Larkin is the vice president of voter services for the League of Women Voters of Dallas (LWVD) and said now is the time to be vigilant.
“If they [voters] don’t know if they’re on the vote-by-mail list, they need to call the county and ask ASAP. If they have already checked and they know they are on the vote-by-mail list, but they haven’t received their ballot, they need to call the county and ask for it,” Larkin says.
Also, Larkin implores everyone to do everything early, “The vast majority of vote-by-mail ballots that are disqualified in Dallas County are due to lateness. And please vote early instead of on Election Day. If something goes wrong with your check-in process on Election Day, it may be too late to fix it.”
Lean in closely, if you receive your mail-in ballot very late and are worried about getting it back in time, Pippins-Poole explained in another recent meeting that the voter would need to take that mail-in ballot with them to a polling location and relinquish it to the election judge in order to be assigned a new ballot.
The only place you can drop off a mail-in ballot is by taking it to the elections office at 1520 Round Table Drive.
Vote Then Brunch, #Dallas
Koch goes a step further, “Vote early, but not on the first day and not on the last day. The best days to vote are actually Saturday and Sunday. Then, celebrate that you voted with a nice brunch!”
On a patio, of course.
(Hold tight for that list of the best places to vote then brunch on a patio.)
A look at 2016 voting data for Dallas County shows that on the Saturday and Sunday of early voting (there was only one weekend that year, this year there are two) voting numbers were indeed significantly lower on the weekends.
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On the 2016 Sunday of early voting, only about 14,000 voters cast their ballots, compared with the first day of voting, which was about 58,000. The last day of early voting saw the biggest surge with around 63,000.
The Saturday of early voting had the second-lowest turnout, seeing 30,000 voters. So, about 30,000 and 14,000 voters on Saturday and Sunday, versus the average weekday count of 40,000.
In terms of election location security, there are no plans for additional or even stationed sheriff’s deputies at any polling locations. If there is any type of security issue, an election judge will call for assistance, and because elections are managed by the county, a sheriff’s deputy would be sent out.
This is where Price might be right. Misinformation is amuck. Poll watchers are sent by the parties and can be there. The only other person who can call security is the election judge. No one, not even a president, can assign anyone else to police a polling place.