Precinct numbers and coordinating polling locations could be a thing of the past for Smith County voters.
County officials are working on a proposal to petition the state for the ability to use countywide voting centers for its elections.
If approved, any voter could cast their ballot at any of the designated 33 polling locations in the county, regardless of precinct numbers.
Currently, voters can participate at any early voting location but must vote at their assigned precinct location on the official Election Day.
Elections Administrator Karen Nelson said the county put together a committee to look into countywide vote centers in May.
“Smith County is the largest county in East Texas,” Ms. Nelson said. “We need to step up and get on board with this, and other counties will see what we are doing and maybe do it as well.”
The goal is to make voting easier and hopefully increase voter engagement and turnout numbers.
The committee evaluated each of the polling locations to come up with a formal, but consolidated, list of polling locations. Ms. Nelson said the committee included representatives from both parties, the Hispanic community and a representative for the disabled community as well as two from the Smith County Commissioners Court.
The committee will present a tentative list of polling locations to the Smith County Commissioners Court Tuesday for approval.
Following the approval of a final list, the county is required to have at least one public hearing on the plan, but it may have more. After that, the county can submit its application to the state to move to vote centers. A mailer also will be sent to all registered voters to notify them of the change, and the move will not affect the voter ID law.
Smith County hopes to have the approval in time for the November U.S. Constitutional election. The election generally has a low turnout, making it a good option for the first run of the new program.
The county’s 54 polling locations were consolidated downward to 33, keeping popular locations and ensuring there is a spot in each major community. Some locations were changed either because the location no longer wanted to host or due to limited accessibility for disabled residents.
The breakdown puts between eight and nine locations in each commissioner district and at least one polling location for every elected body, including cities, school districts, the Tyler Junior College board and emergency services districts.
“We worked off a list that we thought were already good locations, and then we went back and forth to try to find new locations that were convenient to certain areas of the county,” Ms. Nelson said. “We put it on a map, and the IT department is looking at putting together a map.”
Both political parties had to agree to host their primaries in the same locations as well, something that has been common practice in the county for years.
“Everyone on the committee was really happy,” Ms. Nelson said. “It was equally divided among Democrats and Republicans. Everyone seems to be in agreement that it will be the best thing for the voter.”
In the long run, the measure could also save the county some money, because it cuts down on the number of election judges needed.
Tim McCormick, chairman of the Smith County Republican Party, said he fully supports the idea.
“We believe people are the ones who should be running this county, and if we listen to the overwhelming majority of people and get them out voting, it will help,” he said.
Shirley Falzone, chairwoman of the Smith County Democratic Party, could not be reached Friday afternoon for comment.
McCormick said his only concern was to make sure only those were legally allowed to vote could and to have safeguards to ensure no one could vote twice. Those safeguards are already programmed into the voting system, he said.
“Karen Nelson has been working with people with other election offices across the state and with the secretary of state’s office trying to make sure we ... have (everything) done in a way that complies with election law,” he said.
For the parties, the biggest challenge will be how to host precinct conventions.
Traditionally, the precinct conventions for each party are held after the polls close during primaries, but under the new system, there is no longer a polling location in each voting precinct.
Both parties nominate delegates, which progress from the voting precinct all the way to the national conventions. The delegates vote on and set the party’s official state and national platforms and eventually end in the Electoral College, which has a hand in deciding who wins the presidency.
McCormick said he is confident both parties will work out a solution.
“We haven’t worked through all the details of how we will do that, and the executive committee is working on that to come up with the best solution,” he said.
Three Northeast Texas counties have moved to countywide vote centers and say they’re never going back to the old system.
Rusk, Grayson and Navarro counties have already made the switch and report they have received thumbs up from voters, election judges and county staff.
“I can’t think of anything negative about it,” said Rusk County Judge Kathie Wittner.
“We had no problems. Everyone was happy — our judges were happy and said things went good, and voters were happy that they weren’t turned away.
Rusk County went through one election, last November, with the new system. Ms. Wittner said the program didn’t increase voter turnout, but the county’s numbers were consistent with those across the state.
But it did increase the happiness of people trying to find their precinct.
“Every year we have calls from voters on the way to work or somewhere else and they stop to vote and it’s not their registered location, and they didn’t have time to get there or they get discouraged (and don’t vote),” she said. “We didn’t have that problem.”
Deana Patterson, election administrator for Grayson County, said there was a slight learning curve for her staff but the new system actually is easier.
The county, northwest of Dallas, has run four elections using the new system.
In the past, staff programmed the machines twice — once for early voting and again for Election Day. Machines were then individually programmed for each precinct and separated out.
“Now Election Day is the same as early voting,” she said. “To me it’s easier — even the programming part is easier because it’s the same on every machine.”