The Texas Civil Rights Project, which sued successfully to keep Bexar County from closing some voting locations in 2020, warned it could challenge the county again if elections officials follow through with a plan that would reduce the number of Election Day polling places.
The move comes as Democrats across the state are worried about counties closing voting locations that could hurt their candidates’ chances in the November midterms amid their growing excitement about statewide races.
The Bexar County Commissioners Court approved a list of 51 early voting locations Tuesday and asked Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen to go back and increase the number of Election Day locations from the 259 she proposed to a minimum of 302.
That was the number a court ordered the county to operate during the 2020 presidential election after a coalition of progressive groups challenged the way elections officials had distributed voting locations throughout the county.
“Probably technically, they’re still violating the law,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, a lawyer for the Texas Civil Rights Project, of the plan commissioners agreed to for Election Day voting locations.
It’s unlikely the groups would take legal action if the Commissioners Court and elections department bumped the number of polling places back up to 302, he added, but “it would depend on if any community groups wanted to sue over it.”
Tuesday’s meeting was packed with activists and neighborhood leaders who signed up to speak in favor of maintaining voting locations in their neighborhoods and on their college campuses.
In an email sent to commissioners last week, Gonzalez warned that the county should work with the community to resolve complaints about voting access or risk opening itself up to another lawsuit on similar grounds as the last one.
Texas Civil Rights Project’s 2020 lawsuit argued that Bexar County had not followed the legal framework for determining where voting sites should be located. A judge agreed, but because little time remained before the election, the activist groups settled for restoring some previously used voting locations as opposed to revisiting the entire list.
“The baseline for any election is one polling place for [each] election precinct,” or 776 locations for Bexar County, said Gonzalez. “There are laws that allow you to combine certain precincts, but it’s not that you can just do it willy-nilly, which is essentially what the county was doing.”
Headed into this fall’s midterms, Callanen said the county’s use of voting centers, which allow voters to cast their ballot at any location, was supposed to allow a reduction in the number of locations. She once again proposed a reduction in the number of locations, using the previous election’s locations as a starting point.
Gonzalez said in the email that by recycling the old list of voting locations, “the County Elections Department is again misinterpreting the Election Code.”
“In order to avoid litigation, the Commissioners Court should ensure that the community feels satisfied” that the voting locations provide “sufficient access,” he wrote.
Commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting worked to accommodate a variety of requests for polling locations at specific spots.
Students from several universities made their case for keeping locations on campus so that people can avoid driving somewhere to vote. Roland Toscano, superintendent of East Central Independent School District, asked commissioners to keep voting locations in his area because the school district is trying again to pass a bond after one failed last November.
In addition to Callanen’s proposed 46 early voting locations, commissioners added to the list polling spots at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, Our Lady of the Lake University, St. Mary’s University, St. Paul Community Center and the Frank Garrett Multi-Service Center.
When it comes to Election Day locations, however, commissioners have less authority.
Even though most members of the Democrat-controlled court would like to expand the number of Election Day voting locations — and are willing to provide the funds to do so — they can ask the elections administrator only for amendments to her list. They can’t directly order her to add a location.
Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to allow Callanen to begin making arrangements to set up polling places in the 259 Election Day locations she proposed Tuesday, but asked her to return with a list of at least 43 additional sites. Commisioner Marialyn Barnard (Pct. 3), the court’s only Republican, cast the lone no vote.
“We cannot go lower than [that], otherwise we’re going back to court,” said Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4).
Tuesday’s discussion comes as Democrats in Texas are expressing increasing concern about reduced numbers of voting locations in a year where they expect big national issues like abortion and guns to drive people to the polls.
In light of the many recent changes Texas has embraced that makes voting more difficult, Gonzalez asked commissioners to “consider all of this in the larger context of what’s happening in the state.”
“Our state leadership has been taking a death-by-1,000-cuts approach to voting rights, making small restrictions … that only reduce turnout on the margin, but cumulatively, these add up,” he said. “They prevent the most vulnerable communities for turning out by grades 5% to 10% of what they otherwise would be, which is enough to sway competitive elections.”
By most public polling, Texas’ statewide races currently fall within that margin.
Callanen says she wants to use her department’s resources as efficiently as possible, deploying a finite number of voting machines in locations that have the greatest number of voters. Her effort has found support from Bexar County Republican Party Chair Jeff McManus, who sought to partner with Callanen in closing even more.
Commissioners argued that the cuts would primarily hurt communities of color and young people, while preserving most of the locations in precincts that typically vote Republican.
Speaking at an AFL-CIO breakfast in San Antonio on Monday, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Beto O’Rourke echoed that concern. O’Rourke told the crowd that Texas has closed roughly 750 voting locations since 2013, following changes to the Voting Rights Act.
“We know that this is targeted at not all Texans, but some more than others,” said O’Rourke. “When you look at where those closures are, they’re in the fastest growing black and brown neighborhoods in the state of Texas.”
Voting in the jail
Activists at Tuesday’s meeting also want the county to put a voting location in the Bexar County Jail for people who have not yet been convicted of a felony that would make them ineligible to vote, but who were incarcerated after the deadline to request a mail-in ballot.
Though Harris County runs a voting location in its jail, Callanen said it would be impossible to meet the legal requirements because every voting location has to be open to all voters.
“We’ve done a lot of research into it,” said Callanen. “It’s going to open us up to lots of litigation because of the numerous code violations that would come in place because of the parking, because of the lack of being able to campaign.”
Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1) asked the elections department to continue looking into the matter and report back on whether those issues could be addressed for a future election.