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Fewer voting locations, limits on mail-in ballots and the pandemic combine to raise worries about voting in the Nov. 3 election.EXPAND
Fewer voting locations, limits on mail-in ballots and the pandemic combine to raise worries about voting in the Nov. 3 election.
Dallas Observer

Can Dallas County Pull Off an Election With Fewer Polling Places During a Pandemic? Maybe.

State-supported efforts to suppress voting have a long, ugly history across the nation, particularly in Texas, and they’re still alive today. Tougher voter ID laws, early voting barriers, mail-in ballot restrictions and the recent elimination of straight-ticket voting are all part of what critics say is a surgical strike on voting rights.

And then came the pandemic, as if getting voters to the polls already wasn’t challenging enough in Texas, a state notorious for both low turnout and restrictive laws. In 2016, The Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil rights advocacy group, called out Texas’ voting record in its report “The Great Poll Closure,” which looked at how Texas and other states fared after the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in “Shelby County vs. Holder,” which gutted protections put in place under the 1965 U.S. Voting Rights Act.

“Almost half of all Texas counties in our sample closed polling places since 'Shelby,' resulting in 403 fewer voting locations for the 2016 election than in past years,” the report found, noting its sample didn’t include all Texas counties. “These closures come as the state’s voter ID law has become a leading example of voting discrimination.”

The Voting Rights Act required states with histories of voter suppression to obtain clearance from the U.S. Justice Department before altering polling places.

Charlie Bonner, communications director at MoveTexas.org, a nonpartisan voting advocacy group, says loss of that oversight has dramatically affected Texas communities.

“And it’s not happening in affluent neighborhoods,” Bonner says. “The problem is they’ve closed so many locations that they’re putting more people in one place, creating long lines, and many people can’t afford to wait in that line, especially if they’re working at an hourly job.”

For the 2020 election, Dallas County is cutting 250 polling places compared with the 2016 presidential election.

On top of that, COVID-19 has complicated Nov. 3’s bitter election. Social-distancing and hygiene rules intended to prevent the disease’s spread might mean slower voting, compounding the problem of long lines and raising fears of another spike in infections afterward. The workers who staff polling locations also tend to be older and at greater risk from illness. Meanwhile, Democrat-led efforts to expand the use of mail-in ballots in Texas have been turned back by the state’s GOP leadership and federal courts.

“The thing about poll workers is the average age is over 60, so we started sounding the alarm in March as soon as things started to close down,” Bonner says. “We knew this was going to be a problem.”

For the primary runoff elections in Dallas this July, that alarm came too late. At the last minute, the county had to close 194 polling locations. Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippins-Poole told CBS 11 the closures were caused by a shortage of election workers, who worried about the pandemic.

“That was in the runoff, which has substantially less locations than a general election,” Bonner points out. “If you couldn’t do it then, how will you be able to do it in November?”

Civil Discourse

After months of protests and civil unrest across the country, voting watchdog organizations, advocates and celebrities are beating the drum to encourage citizens to register, vote early and work at polls. Even NBA star LeBron James is involved. On Sept. 1, he used his large Twitter platform to implore people to sign up to work elections in their communities.

In late August, NBA teams sat out a playoff game to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and ongoing police brutality afflicting Black Americans.

As part of the players’ demand for action, NBA team owners agreed to work with local elections officials to allow team-owned arenas to serve as mega voting centers, among them Dallas’ American Airlines Center (AAC).

“We talk about voting like it’s a party,” says Bonner. “People don’t show up to a party if they don’t know where it is or if they weren’t invited. Part of the thing that makes these arenas great as polling locations is that everyone is familiar with them.”

Further, the AAC is connected to public transportation. Large spaces on its concourse will allow for ample social distancing, and high ceilings contribute to good airflow, lessening the chance that the airborne coronavirus will spread.

But all of AAC’s pluses will be lost if not enough poll workers show up to manage balloting.

Civic Duty

Dallas County resident Mila Senn, 52, worked at a polling location for the first time ever in March and then again in the July runoffs.

“I initially got involved because I heard there was a shortage,” Senn says. She knew older workers primarily managed polling places and wanted to help lessen the odds they would get sick from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

She was also fed up.

“I didn’t like the way things were going,” Senn says. “I was hearing about rigged elections, and I wanted to see for myself how that election process played out. And I’ll tell you, Dallas County is ironclad.”

Senn is planning to work Nov. 3 plus the three weeks of early voting beforehand, and she has used social media to recruit others to join her.

In his work across Texas, Bonner says he is seeing young people starting to pay attention to their local elected officials down the ballot, not just at the federal level. They’re also familiarizing themselves with the people who run elections.

In Dallas County, that’s Pippins-Poole, who in 2011 became the chief of election department, where she has worked since 1988. Her time leading the department has had several rocky patches: mail-ballot fraud investigations, the $6 million purchase of equipment that wasn’t compliant with security guidelines, uncounted votes on Super Tuesday this year and missed mail ballots this July. Plus, there was an issue of her soliciting cash donations from county vendors.

In June, she announced she would retire at the end of November.

She was appointed by an election commission, which now comprises County Judge Clay Jenkins, County Clerk John Warren, Tax Assessor John Ames and chairs of the county’s Democratic and Republican parties.

On Sept. 3, the commission called a special meeting to review all things related to the election, including the search for Pippins-Poole’s replacement. Warren, Ames, Democrat chair Carol Donovan and Republican chair Rodney Anderson interrogated Pippins-Poole for more than two hours. Hand-sanitizer, security, masks, mail pickup and vague threats from President Donald Trump: they wanted to hear it all.

Pippins-Poole had detailed and confident answers, but Warren urgently wanted to know: Would the county have enough election workers for early voting and Election Day?

Election Worker Basics

Under the statute for early voting, both parties funnel staff to work polling locations and, ideally, each party is represented equally. The party that won the gubernatorial race in that precinct during the last election is the main judge for those polling centers; the other party member is there for oversight.

Anyone who is a registered voter can sign up to get involved as an official, judge or clerk through the county website. Various nonprofits will guide voters there as well.

But, the commission wanted assurance that polling places would be sufficiently staffed by both parties, avoiding an emergency process or, worse, closing locations as happened in July.

“This is where we had this issue in the previous election in 2016 and 2018. We didn’t have a sufficient number of Republicans at the polling locations,” Pippins-Poole told the commission. “So, we had to overstaff those with Democrats or workers with no party affiliation, which we can do in an emergency process.”

William Busby, communications director of the Dallas County Republican Party, says this election they’re making sure they have more than enough people.

“We expect no shortages for election workers from the Dallas County Republican party’s side,” Busby told the Observer. “We submitted a record-breaking number of names to the elections department and are working hard to see a victory in Dallas County this November.”

Historically, except to wary party leaders, who supplies the workers doesn’t really matter so long as they show up.

Pippins-Poole told the commission the county needed 5,000 workers to sufficiently power the polls starting with early voting Oct. 13 all the way through Nov. 3.

In a highlight reel moment during the meeting, Pippins-Poole was handed a piece of paper. She broke through the chatter and announced, “Hot off the press! As of today, we have 5,004 people signed up.”

The commission clapped and whooped.

Location, Location, Location

During the 2016 general election, Dallas County had more than 700 polling locations on Election Day. For the 2020 election, as of Sept. 11, there are 450.

Texas law allows counties to operate half as many locations if they transitioned away from precinct-based polling places to “centers” where all county voters may cast ballot regardless of their address. Dallas County has made this jump.

The Leadership Conference Education Fund writes that “while this move to vote centers can have real benefits for the county and voters, in those counties where there is a history of racial discrimination against voters, the fact that these changes can be made without federal oversight is troubling.

“These closures come as the state has become a leading example of voting discrimination since Shelby.”

Pippins-Poole predicted the county will have a record turnout this election, so the idea of cutting the number of locations by some 250 places is puzzling, if not panic-inducing.

Additionally, this year Texas voters are no longer allowed to vote a straight ticket — just check the box for their party and move along. Instead, they have to sort through each race and make their choices. Dallas County will have 44 items on the ballot. This is expected to slow the voting process significantly. (Voters do not have to make a choice in every race for their ballots to count.)

So, 250 fewer locations, record turnout and 44 items to vote for on each ballot, but an adequate number of election workers. During a pandemic. How’s that going to work out?

The Observer reached out the county elections office. Tandy Smith, the election judge polling location manager, declined to answer when asked if she plans to add polling locations on Election Day. She only said the list wasn’t complete. When we asked if there was a number she was trying to reach, her answer was literally silence.

Emails to several other officials with Dallas County inquiring about the large drop in polling locations went unanswered.

As the officials in charge of our elections, answering questions about upcoming elections to the media seems like an important role. Obviously, they don’t see it that way.

It’s impossible to know if fewer locations will affect historically disenfranchised and minority communities because, as of Sept. 12, the county’s online map of polling locations doesn’t work.

In a search on the county election’s site, the link to “Election Day Vote Center Finder” leads to a password-protected site. Another similar link leads errantly to a voter registration page.

Earling Voting Reigns

For early voting, the county will provide 59 locations plus the one mega-center at the AAC. All centers will be open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 1 p.m.-6 p.m. Sundays from Oct. 13 through Oct. 30. (Texas Gov. Greg Abbott added one week to early voting this pandemic year.)

So, that’s 18 days of early voting at 60 locations; 16 of those are 12-hour days.

Pippins-Poole told the commission that every polling location has a mobile curbside voting machine for those who are unable to go inside. Signs will be posted in the parking lot with instructions on how to contact the staff to request curbside voting.

Pippins-Poole also updated the commission on their meetings with the postmaster to ensure swift coordination of pickup and delivery of ballots. The county has even purchased a mail sorter to help organize and process all the mail-in ballots.

Many early voting centers have been moved to larger locations to allow for better social distancing. Signs redirecting voters will be posted at all the old locations including scannable QR codes linked to a map on how to get to the new place.

The elections commission asked about threats made by President Trump, including his suggestion that there would be a police or military presence at polling places.

Pippins-Poole made it clear that’s the election official’s territory.

“We can summon a peace officer to assist [at polling locations]. The law tells you who can be in the vicinity. The only time they [police] can be on the premise is at the request of the election judge,” Pippins-Poole said.

Warren reiterated, “I think that’s what people are missing. When it comes to elections, the most powerful person is the election judge. They have the authority to direct someone to come on and to leave [the site]. That’s another one of these myths that people are spreading.”

As far as President Trump's suggestion in North Carolina that people should try to vote twice, Pippins-Poole went into detail on how that type of voter fraud is being prevented.

If a person requests a mail-in ballot, that information is uploaded to the polling system. If they then show up at a polling place to vote and haven’t yet used that mail-in ballot, they would have to surrender it and the judge would call an election official who would have to clear it in the e-poll books.

If the person already used the mail-in ballot, it’s uploaded into the poll book and another ballot cannot be activated for that voter.

If the ballot is sitting in a mail stack somewhere and hasn’t been counted yet, they wouldn’t be able to vote in-person because the voter wouldn’t have the mail-in ballot to surrender.

The commission also asked about the COVID precautions taken for workers; they have plenty of supplies and are getting more. They also asked if voters have to wear masks. Turns out a person’s right to vote cannot be denied because they won't wear a mask. Gov. Abbott’s executive order for masks specifically does not extend to voters.

Should You Worry? A Bit.

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The cut in polling places is still a concern. Even with the bigger spaces, extended early voting and the mega-center at AAC, cutting so many locations feels like a recipe for trouble. Voting advocacy groups tell us our fears are valid.

The questions remain: Will extended early voting and voting centers disperse crowds enough so that the county can make do with 250 fewer sites with a long ballot and operating under pandemic protocols — all without creating monstrous lines likely to turn people away?

We won’t know until Nov. 3. We’ll reckon with that answer for the next four years.

Vote early.

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