Voters wait in line at Glen Oaks Elementary school on November 3, 2020. Credit: Stephanie Marquez for the San Antonio Report

After record turnout, Bexar County officials rate voter access expansion a success.

Though votes are still being tallied, Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen drew some early conclusions about how the November election unfolded in Bexar County. She is confident about one thing: using the San Antonio Spurs’ home stadium as a vote center probably won’t happen again.

“I know we won’t be able to keep the AT&T Center when it’s non-COVID,” she said.

The AT&T Center was one of four mega-vote centers used during early voting and on Election Day in Bexar County. The mega-vote centers featured larger spaces and more machines in one place in an attempt to increase voter access and physical distance in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Bexar County commissioners approved the use of mega-voting sites in August.

Bexar County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) championed the use of mega-vote centers and extended voting hours in the months leading up to Election Day to increase voter access. Both ideas were embraced by the community in this election, he said.

“The idea of utilizing some of these bigger facilities for spacing purposes and just for general comfort of the election workers and voters … I just heard a lot of very positive feedback in my backyard Precinct 2,” he said. “We used the St. Paul Community Center. And I heard from beginning early vote to the end that everybody was really happy with the setup there. They’d like us to continue to continue utilizing that moving forward.”

With the extended early voting period, Bexar County set a turnout record of 64 percent with 760,931 early, Election Day, and absentee ballots cast, but Callanen was not convinced that mega-vote centers would continue to be used in Bexar County.

“The regular election libraries outpaced the additional four sites,” she said.

Bexar County had 48 polling places for early voters in October. Of the 10 vote centers with the most traffic, only two were mega-vote centers: Alzafar Shrine Auditorium, where 23,617 people cast early ballots, and the AT&T Center, where 21,915 people cast early ballots. Most were libraries typically used during elections, such as the John Igo Library, Brook Hollow Library, and the Encino Library. The most popular voting location overall was Northwest Vista College; more than 24,000 people cast early ballots there.

Callanen said she thinks her department will continue to set up 48 early vote centers in future elections, citing the high turnout over the three-week voting period in October. Nearly 595,000 people cast ballots early and in person between Oct. 13 and Oct. 30.

“The voters were telling us when they wanted to vote and where they wanted to vote,” she said. “I think we will keep the early voting sites.”

Rodriguez also pushed for other election proposals – sometimes reaching the point of open conflict with Callanen in commissioners court meetings – that were not adopted by the Elections Department for November. He advocated for additional absentee ballot drop-off sites in Bexar County. Another idea he wanted to see implemented was the use of 24-hour voting sites, which were employed in Harris County. Commissioners settled on the compromise of extended early voting hours at all 48 sites during the last five days of voting, with polls staying open until 10 p.m.

“I heard from nurses and truck drivers, bus operators. Some of them work double shifts and said, ‘Wow, it was great to be able to go vote at 9 or 9:30 at night,’” Rodriguez said. “I think those extended hours really were a nice addition to what we hadn’t done in the past.”

Callanen told reporters that the late night hours felt unsafe for election workers, but they could be established again with some changes.

“I would not do a week of them,” she said. “… That first late night, a lot of our officials called us and asked us, were we going to provide security? Because they were nervous about going out at 11 o’clock at night. I think with the extended hours there could be a medium, maybe we could do one or two nights. But a full week of it was exhausting for the teams, both in the fields and here.”

Rodriguez said he would be in favor of trying drive-thru voting in the future as well. Harris County tried it, but right before Election Day Texas Republicans tried to challenge the legitimacy of nearly 127,000 votes cast at the county’s drive-thru voting sites. A federal judge rejected the case the day before Election Day, but the Harris County clerk decided to close nine of 10 drive-thru options on Election Day as a precaution.

“It was held that those are valid votes,” Rodriguez said of ballots cast at drive-thru polling places. “When I think about it, I think about ways to make voting easier for people. Obviously, you can’t hold their hand and take them to vote. But it’s just human nature – if you make things as convenient as possible, then the more folks are apt to participate.”

Callanen also said she’d also be examining the popularity of the mail-in ballot tracker tool that allowed people voting with absentee ballots to track the status of their ballot.  

“We’ll take a look at that one … and see how many people used it,” she said. “Was it worthwhile, did they find it [worthwhile]?”

But for now, while mail-in ballots for military members overseas are still being accepted through Monday, Callanen and her staff will take some time before drawing additional conclusions about the 2020 voting process.

“It’s too early to tell what worked,” she said.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.