The text message arrived the evening before the July 14 primary runoff election: A Bexar County election judge was urgently asking for help. Poll workers scheduled to work at a busy polling location had pulled out due to the fear of contracting COVID-19. The election judge feared they would not have enough staff to operate the polling location if they could not recruit new poll workers in a matter of hours.
Delaying our get-out-the-vote efforts, MOVE Texas organizers quickly phoned volunteers to ask young people if they could work the polling location the next morning. After hours of outreach, a Texas A&M student sent home from College Station because of the pandemic stepped up, and the polling location opened as planned.
But other locations weren’t as lucky. Because of their failure to adequately prepare, the Bexar County Elections Department was forced to close 11 polling locations when election workers backed out. The sudden and unprecedented closure of polling places put the rights of thousands of voters at risk, and it could have been avoided.
Against a frightening backdrop of a worsening pandemic in San Antonio, the average age of an election worker in Bexar county is 72 years old. It was clear long before the July runoff that poll worker recruitment was going to be a challenge.
Election officials in Harris, Travis, and Hays counties heeded civic organizations’ calls to overhire poll workers and expand election budgets to account for this fear, but Bexar County ignored calls to action.
By mid-March, COVID-19 was rapidly spreading in Texas. The state reported a staggering 10,000 cases only a few weeks after the March primary election. On March 20, Gov. Greg Abbott postponed the scheduled May primary runoff election until July, citing public health concerns. All indicators showed conditions were undeniably serious here in Bexar County and across the state.
Weeks after the governor’s announcement, four young MOVE Texas organizers submitted testimony to the Bexar County Commissioners Court connecting the impact of COVID-19 with the right to vote safely and urging swift action. Building on those testimonies, MOVE Texas, Texas Organizing Project, and Texas Rising released a letter addressed to Election Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen calling for a comprehensive election plan to be released publicly.
Preventing a reduction in the number of polling locations for the July and November elections was among the main intentions of this letter. We outlined how proactive, dedicated recruitment was essential to ensure we had the poll workers to staff all 225 planned locations.
Among the many forms of rampant voter suppression that undermine the right to vote in this state, polling location closures represent one of the most severe and devastating. Since 2013, over 1,000 polling locations have closed across the country, more than 750 of those closures have taken place in Texas.
Watching cases rise and a disastrous, unsafe, and ill-executed Wisconsin primary election unfold, it was clear that local officials and those who oversee elections needed to prepare for the worst. We had three months to avoid this disaster and an obligation to prepare our systems to support explosive turnout trends, noting the emerging youth power in the electorate.
In that time, voting rights advocates put the pressure on local elected officials to pass plans, supported by budgets, to adapt election infrastructure for a pandemic. As a result of that pressure, places like Harris County passed a $12 million plan, and Hays County authorized additional spending to preserve the right to vote safely. Harris County’s S.A.F.E Initiative is a model of what intentional, community involved, comprehensive planning looks like. Thanks to Interim Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins and community collaboration, not one polling place was closed and a reserve of poll workers was on standby for any last-minute cancellations.
Bexar County had no comparable initiatives. As we examine the failures of the July runoff, we must acknowledge that time was available to prepare. Community and voting rights advocates sounded the alarm early and best practice models from other Texas cities were available to reference and replicate. Ahead of November, now is the time for action to protect the right to vote.
Thankfully, Commissioner Justin Rodriguez has put forward a comprehensive plan to ensure the operational readiness of our elections while also making investments to increase voter outreach and education. From sending all eligible voters over the age of 65 applications to vote by mail to recruiting younger people to serve as election workers and expanded curbside voting, these are concrete solutions that will protect our elections. With this investment, Bexar County can make good on its constitutional obligation to hold free and fair elections. The right to vote must be safeguarded with the seriousness and care that running an election during a pandemic warrants.