It was a later than expected night tabulating votes for the Smith County Election Office during its staff’s first foray into countywide voting.
Tuesday’s was the first election in which voters were allowed to cast ballots at any of 34 locations around the county as part of a pilot program monitored by the Texas Secretary of State.
Voting machines provide ballots based on the individual voter’s precinct at all locations rather than requiring voters to visit precinct-specific locations to vote.
For example, Precinct 3 and Precinct 21 voters typically were required to vote at Bell Elementary School. But the change allowed those voters to cast ballots at any of the county’s 34 voting centers.
It’s a convenience for voters, but the process took longer than expected to calculate votes Tuesday night, Election Administrator Karen Nelson said. She said the constitutional election, which typically draws the fewest number of voters, was a good learning experience for her staff and election judges.
Mrs. Nelson said voters gave overwhelmingly positive feedback about the change.
“I’m really excited about it,” she said. “It’s definitely a positive for voters, and I expect the process to only get smoother as we learn from the constitutional election.”
Mrs. Nelson said voters she spoke to by phone Tuesday were very pleased. Each Election Day her office receives a steady stream of phone calls from residents who want to know the voting location for their precinct.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Nelson asked callers if they were at work and, if so, the address, so she could give them three or four of the closest locations where they could vote.
“When they found out they could vote anywhere, and I said ‘You’re close to this, this and this location,’ they were very happy,” she said.
But there were a few snags Tuesday.
Mrs. Nelson said some polling location openings were delayed because setting up the electronic voting machines took longer than election judges expected, because the voting centers required that all 73 countywide voting precincts be programmed into every machine.
Staff also has been unable to access votes in one electronic voting machine, she said. A voting machine vendor technician worked beyond 1:30 a.m. to retrieve 88 votes, Mrs. Nelson said. None of the votes factored into contested races.
Smith County was the last county in the state to report complete but unofficial results to the Secretary of State because of the machine.
Her office also experienced delays reporting results online due to a computer problem that the information technology department corrected.
Mrs. Nelson said the county sought public feedback regarding the change.
The county provided 200 surveys regarding the new voting center program at each location. Most were filled out, she said, including many with written comments. She said staff would begin tabulating responses from more than 6,600 survey responses today and present the findings to county commissioners Tuesday.
County commissioners will set a future public hearing to give residents an opportunity to give opinions and express compliments and concerns about the change.
The public hearing is a requirement for counties as part of the pilot program.
Texas Secretary of State spokeswoman Alicia Pierce said public response to programs implemented around the state have been generally favorable.
There are 37 counties participating in the program that was created in 2009.
The Texas Secretary of State may determine a county’s participation in the program was “successful” following an election under the program. Once designated as “successful,” that county may continue to use the program for subsequent elections.
Rusk County joined the program for the November 2014 election, and Election Administrator Kathie Whittner called it an overall success after the election. The state agreed and deemed their program “successful.”
In late-November 2014, when the county was discussing participation in the program, both Democrat and Republican Party officials expected the change would lead to increased voter participation because of convenience.
Ms. Pierce said it’s difficult to speculate about the program’s effect on turnout. Statewide, this constitutional election drew a higher number of voters than is typical, but officials are unsure if there is a correlation. But there is growing interest among counties to join the program.
The state allows six counties with populations greater than 100,000 and four counties with populations less than 100,000 to participate each election. This year, the state turned away counties for the first time.
Not all counties are successful the first time, she said. But counties may reapply.
Mrs. Nelson said she hopes the results prove to be a success. She has already been in contact with the vendor that supplies the voting machines and software to discuss streamlining the tabulation process for the March 2016 presidential primaries, which will draw a much larger number of voters.
She also plans to discuss tabulation processes with larger counties with thousands of voting machines to process and see if there are ways to improve efficiency and speed.
The office also will look at the top 10 voting locations with the most voter traffic to see if more resources might improve the process, she said.
“It’s only going to get better,” she said. “I expect the primary to be smoother, because of the experience.”