The Bexar County Elections Department is proposing cutting the number of voting centers from the 300 locations used in the November 2020 election to 258 for the 2022 midterms.
Both Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen and Bexar County Republican Chair Jeff McManus would like to go much further, eliminating at least 10 additional locations where turnout was low.
“We would have so much better success with fewer sites, where we could mobilize the equipment and put it at some of the larger sites,” Callanen said Monday at a meeting of the county’s election board.
The election board consists of Callanen, McManus, Democratic Party Chair Monica Alcántara, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Sheriff Javier Salazar.
It can advise on the number and location of voting centers, but the final decision is made by the Bexar County Commissioners Court, which has expressed skepticism about any changes that could harm voting access.
“I’ve got some concerns about reducing those numbers and the methodology [by which the locations were chosen],” said Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2). “I want to make sure that people that disproportionately have been impacted with not having access to the ballot box don’t get cut out.”
Bexar County switched to voting centers in 2019, allowing people to vote at any location, not just one assigned to them according to their address.
That change was supposed to allow a reduction in the number of voting locations, though Democrats have fought it, even getting a judge to help them stop a planned reduction in 2020.
“The law says that if you have a successful first election at 65%, then going forward the idea of vote centers is to have 50% of your sites open in the county going forward,” Callanen said. “We’re a far cry from that. We stayed at 258.”
Monday’s meeting came as elections departments across the state are under pressure from people who question the results of the 2020 presidential election. Callanen also is closing in on retirement, having told commissioners in 2020 that it was her last presidential election.
“I’m frustrated,” said Callanen. “We have commissioners who just don’t want any part” in cutting the number of locations.
In addition to her department’s proposed 42 location reductions, Callanen asked McManus and Alcántara to each compile a list of additional potential voting locations where fewer than 120 votes were cast in the November 2020 election.
Pointing to a map of those locations, Alcántara argued cutting from that list would disproportionately hurt Democrats.
“The majority of all the sites seem to hit already disenfranchised areas,” said Alcántara said. “After discussing this with our Democrats and our commissioners, I’m not in a position to accept any of the sites” being eliminated.
Callanen and McManus were undeterred.
After walking through the list of under-used locations, they came up with a list of 10 they felt could be cut without harming voter access: Burbank High School, Gus Garcia Middle School, Joe Ward Recreation Center, Storm Elementary School, Alamo Stadium Convention Center, Roan Forest Elementary School, Regency Place Elementary School, Bradley Middle School, Lamar Elementary School and St. Philip of Jesus Catholic Church.
Callanen said some underperforming locations, like City Hall in the municipality of China Grove, could not be closed because there wasn’t another location nearby. Another low-turnout spot, the Judson ISD Educational Resource Center, could not be closed because the school district was proposing a bond.
Yet another underperforming location, Shearer Hills Baptist Church, will be replaced with a new Precinct 3 community room that Commissioner Marialyn Barnard opened at 320 Interpark Blvd.
“We don’t have we don’t have the volunteers and the bodies available, due to our electoral apathy, to man our polling stations appropriately in accordance to the statutes,” McManus said. “It’s a fairly non discriminatory way of doing it. It’s just usage and cost.”
Democrats are also struggling to staff election sites. Alcántara sent an email blast Monday seeking help to fill the positions and warning that without enough help polling sites could be closed.
Wolff advised McManus to gather information on the under-performing sites and make his case to the Commissioners Court when it meets Aug. 22.
“I personally think you’ve got to close some,” said Wolff. Though “I know my Democrats are not supportive of that.”
Sounding a warning
Callanen opened the meeting by warning that other elections departments in Texas are “under siege” from people who don’t trust the results of the 2020 election.
She distributed copies of a story from the Fredericksburg Standard-Radio Post describing how Gillespie County’s elections staff resigned, citing threats to their safety.
As in other counties, Callanen said her staff has received threats, as well as requests for information she termed “frivolous.”
“Our biggest thing right now is that we are just absolutely buried in frivolous open records requests,” she said. “They are asking for things that we have no control over and things that we are not able to give.”
Callanen said in one instance, someone had requested to see every mail-in ballot, every mail-in ballot application and every mail-in ballot envelope from the 2020 election. Another had asked for the access codes for all the elections equipment.
“You feel like you’re under siege,” said Callanen.