The AT&T Center will serve as a "mega-vote center" to allow for social distancing during the November election.
Spurs Sports & Entertainment are seeking new naming rights for the AT&T Center when the partnership ends in 2022. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Bexar County voters will be able to cast their ballots at sprawling polling sites such as the AT&T Center to allow for social distancing during the November election.

County commissioners adopted a resolution Friday supporting measures such as mega-vote centers and mailing absentee ballot applications to all registered voters 65 and older ahead of the November election.

Commissioner Justin Rodriguez advocated for mega-vote centers in a letter to Wolff earlier in August, and drafted a resolution with election proposals. He said Friday that by using ingenuity, the County could make voting safer and accessible during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We know we have a huge election coming up,” Rodriguez said. “We know we have a serious public health threat. My perspective is, ‘Let’s do everything we can in this environment so voters have options, convenience, and safe encounters in the election process.’”

Commissioners also voted to order the Nov. 3 election, though they tabled some of the procedural items such as setting voting times for Saturdays and Sundays until they have time to address proposals made in Rodriguez’s resolution.

In the resolution, commissioners support funding personal protective equipment for election officials and voters, funding additional training and hiring of election workers, paying postage both ways for mail-in ballot applications to registered voters ages 65 and older, increasing the number of curbside voting machines, operating one 24-hour voting center at least one day a week during early voting, and having places for people to drop off their mail-in ballots. Read the full resolution here.

Not all of the items in the resolution can happen, said Jacque Callanen, Bexar County elections administrator. For example, having designated mail-in ballot drop-off sites would require someone to verify photo ID and match signatures. Commissioners asked the district attorney’s office to look into that item Friday, and Rodriguez acknowledged that the entire list of proposed changes may not be implemented this November,

“Realistically, there are some things we can’t get done in a short time frame, but by and large I think there are some things that can get done by Oct. 13 when early voting starts,” Rodriguez said.

Callanen also said she does not anticipate opening a 24-hour voting location, as it would be logistically difficult. 

“There are so many legalities that fall into having an election site open,” Callanen said.

She said she was also concerned about the possible disenfranchisement of voters who move to Bexar County after the voter registration deadline. If they are registered elsewhere, they can still cast limited ballots, she explained – for example, only for the presidential race. But they can only vote in the “main” early voting site, which would be the Bexar County Elections Department office.

“That would be a hardship if somebody is there at 2 in the morning to vote at a site, and we don’t have the main early voting site open because of office hours,” she said.

Rodriguez said he thinks opening one location for 24 hours would only increase accessibility to voters.

“That’s her opinion,” Rodriguez said. “I respect her opinion, she’s in charge of administering the election. But I have a hard time believing that having 24-hour access to a voting center disenfranchises anybody. … We’re now seeing the effects [of the coronavirus pandemic] on our health care workers, our public safety personnel, our first responders, working long hours, odd hours. Why not give them and others the opportunity to vote in a maximized way?”

Callanen and the elections department have already secured two mega-vote center locations – the AT&T Center and the Alzafar Shrine Auditorium will both be open to voters in November. But she is still looking for two more locations in Precincts 1 and 2, she said.

“It’s going to be a wonderful thing because we can spread the units out,” she said.

Voting advocacy groups urged commissioners to avoid replacing historically used voting locations with the mega-vote centers on Friday. While the League of Women Voters supports the addition of these extra-large polling sites, they don’t want the County to eliminate smaller locations nearby, the organization said in a statement read by Ryan Cox, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

“Adding the mega centers must not mean eliminating other vote centers, especially in low-income and minority neighborhoods where voters rely largely on public transportation,” Cox said. “A voter should not have to take multiple buses and increase risk of exposure to get to the nearest place to vote.”

A few commenters representing the University of Texas at San Antonio also spoke Friday, imploring commissioners to keep the university campus as a voting location in November. UTSA alum Ileana González pointed out that the college campus has larger facilities than other traditional polling sites, such as libraries, and would be ideal to encourage people to maintain social distancing. And she still votes there, Gonzales said.

“Many students and alumni, like myself, rely on the UTSA polling location to cast their ballots, even after graduating,” said fellow UTSA alum William Trynoski. “There are still many students living around campus, in anticipation of school opening for fall and spring.”

Callanen stressed that the list of voting locations for early voting and Election Day is still in flux. When she has presented voting locations for commissioners to approve over the past 20 years, they have been draft documents subject to change, Callanen said. With so many entities still deciding whether or not to call an election, exactly which sites will be needed remains unclear, she said.

The deadline for government entities to call an election is Monday at 5 p.m.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.