New voting machines are unpacked for inspection before being shelved.
New voting machines are unpacked for inspection before being stored at the Bexar County Elections Department. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Bexar County Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to purchase 70 additional voting machines and tabulators after representatives from voting rights groups complained that reducing the number of voting locations in November could disenfranchise voters.

Bexar County is set to adopt a system of vote centers, where registered voters can vote at any location on election day. Currently, voters are required to cast their ballots at their designated precinct on election day, though they can vote anywhere during early voting.

Under the vote center model, county officials previously announced it would have fewer voting locations across the county than usual, but nine people representing the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), the Texas Civil Rights Project, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), League of Women Voters, NAACP, and the Bexar County Republican Party told commissioners Tuesday they wanted to keep Election Day polling locations the same when the vote center model debuts in November.

“I find it interesting and lovely to see I’m going to be echoing everyone else’s sentiments here – TOP, MALDEF, League of Women Voters – because we firmly believe the voters of San Antonio should not be disenfranchised over 20 voting machines,” Bexar County Republican Party Chair Cynthia Brehm said.

Commissioners already approved purchasing new voting machines and moving to a vote center model at their May meeting. Like the old ones, the new voting machines are touch screen. The new machines also give each voter a paper ballot, which he or she then deposits into a tabulator for the vote to be counted. 

The commissioners directed Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen to maintain 287 Election Day polling sites, the number the county usually has during non-presidential general elections. Texans will vote on 10 constitutional amendments in November, and Callanen expects lower turnout.

The voting centers are designed to alleviate confusion over assigned polling locations that can lead to voters having to cast provisional ballots. Callanen told commissioners that 810 voters went to the wrong location on the day of the November 2018 midterm elections, and none of their provisional votes were counted.

“Out of the 810 not counted the last time, how many would have been counted [with vote centers]?” Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3) asked.

“All 810,” Callanen said.

“That’s good enough for me,” Wolff said.

MALDEF attorney Ernest Herrera told commissioners the organization wants to make sure all polling locations are accessible by public transit. He added that any outreach to educate the public about the vote center model would have to be done in Spanish.

“MALDEF is concerned with the potential impact on access that countywide polling may have on Latino voters,” Herrera said. “It is the county’s obligation under the federal Voting Rights Act to ensure that the transition to countywide polling places does not have a disparate impact on precincts with a majority of registered voters who are Latino.”

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff praised Callanen’s work as the elections administrator.

“I want people to understand we ran damn good elections for a very long time and we’ve not had any lawsuits [about discrimination] filed against us,” he said.

Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) also requested Tuesday that the County allocate an additional $50,000 to the Elections Department for advertising and outreach purposes. The commissioners approved that motion unanimously.

Callanen agreed to meet with commissioners individually to discuss their concerns about which polling locations need to be open in November. A working group made up of stakeholders such as school districts, interest groups, and political groups drafted a list of polling locations over the course of five meetings to which county commissioners said they would like to add.

“I’d like us to stay at the same number, but I’m open to other discussions and I understand too that there’s some pressure to get this done and not wait until the last minute,” Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) said, referring to the Aug. 20 deadline to send polling locations to the Secretary of State for approval.

Purchasing an additional 70 voting machines will cost $655,000. Commissioner Wolff cast the lone vote against additional voting locations and machines. While Wolff is in favor of the vote center model, he said opening the same number of polling locations as before uses taxpayer funds unnecessarily.

“We went from each individual having one location they could go to [on Election Day] to a potential 275,” he said. “That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

“We spent some more money so we can make people feel better that we addressed something.”

If the Secretary of State’s office does not approve the county’s proposed November polling locations, Callanen said that the county would continue with the precinct voting model.

The county commissioners will vote on the final list of polling locations on Aug. 20. 

Avatar photo

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.