Virtually every election cycle brings complaints from voters who say they couldn’t cast their ballots because they went to the wrong polling site.
In the Rio Grande Valley like most parts of the country, every election district has its own polling location on Election Day. But, like most places, local officials are reporting record numbers of new voters registering in advance of the 2020 presidential primaries and election. Veteran voters likely know where to vote, as precinct sites don’t change often for general elections. And although this newspaper will publish polling places several times for each election, the influx of new voters raises the chance that people will go to the wrong location.
People who go to the wrong location can cast provisional ballots that must be verified, but many voters don’t know that and simply leave without casting a ballot.
Those issues don’t apply during early voting, as any voter can cast a ballot at any location, and it could be one reason growing numbers of voters choose to vote early rather than wait until Election Day.
In response, voting districts in many states are abandoning the precinct system altogether and opening vote centers that, like early voting locations, offer ballots for all precincts. More than 50 other Texas counties, including the five largest, already have done so.
Should Valley elections administrators join them?
Precinct designations are still needed, since their boundaries determine individual representation on city commissions, school boards and legislative districts. But general-purpose polling places offer many conveniences. For example, working hours might make it difficult for some people to stop at their precincts; general polling sites would enable them to vote at any site on their lunch breaks or on the way to or from work. It also could reduce allegations of impropriety, as occurs during some elections. Polling sites have been opened at some locations for some elections but not others, raising accusations that their placement or removal was an effort to influence the results.
General-purpose voting centers could reduce such problems, but there are some caveats.
Elections offices would have to print more ballots, to ensure that every location has enough for voters of every district who might go there. State law allowing the voting centers enables counties to offset the added cost by reducing the number of polling locations, to 65% of the number of precinct sites for the first election following the change and 50% thereafter. Most voters might not be inconvenienced if their neighborhood precinct site closes, but older voters might be burdened if they no longer can just walk down the street to their traditional polling site.
Also, fewer locations might lead to longer lines, which could deter some voters who won’t, or can’t, wait. Their loss could offset any that might be added by making the change.
Local counties should consider the pros and cons of adopting a polling system that might be more convenient, and increase voter participation. Thorough review of the process will, we trust, enable them to make a decision that is best for our voting public.