The voting line outside the Claude Black Center on Tuesday. More than 33,000 people cast ballots in person on the first day of early voting. Credit: Stephanie Marquez for the San Antonio Report

A Bexar County district court judge has ordered the county Elections Department to add 18 more voting locations on Election Day.

Judge Karen Pozza of the 407th District Court made the ruling Tuesday after hearing arguments in a lawsuit brought by two voting advocacy groups, Texas Organizing Project (TOP) and MOVE Texas, last week. She instructed the Elections Department not only to add more voting centers on Nov. 3, but also to post the locations of Election Day voting sites earlier than usual.

Pozza wrote in her order that Bexar County commissioners and Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen “imminently stand to violate” election code by not posting Election Day polling places on the Elections Department website 21 days before Election Day and by operating 284 vote centers that day. In 2018, there were 302 polling places on Election Day.

Early voting began Tuesday, with long lines at many of the 48 voting sites around the county. More than 33,000 people cast ballots in person on the first day of early voting.

Callanen testified that 14 of the voting sites used in the 2018 general election – including school campuses in Judson, Northside, and North East Independent School Districts – would not be used in 2020, according to the order.

“Closure of historic polling places increases information costs for voters, including TOP members seeking to vote on Election Day,” Pozza wrote. “Not providing proper notice of polling locations also increases those voter information costs and harms Plaintiff organizations in their ability to execute their [get out the vote] activities and plan for Election Day.”

Pozza’s order also stated that injury to the plaintiffs outweighed the burden on Bexar County of adding voting sites.

The plaintiff organizations praised the ruling in a news release Tuesday.

“With record turnout expected for this year’s election, we’re glad to see the court push to expand polling place access for Bexar County voters and transparency from the Elections Department,” said H. Drew Galloway, MOVE Texas Civic Fund executive director. “Despite Texas’ ugly history of voter suppression, we’re fighting to ensure every eligible voter can make their voice heard.” 

County commissioners and Callanen would discuss whether to comply with the order or appeal the decision, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said Tuesday.

“We do have options on what we might do, but I’ve suggested to [Callanen] that she try to find some extra spots, and it would require moving people around, which would affect our mega [voting] centers,” Wolff said.

Joaquin Gonzalez, a staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project who represented the plaintiffs, said they looked forward to working with election officials to ensure all Bexar County voters can cast ballots safely and easily.

“Bexar County has been violating the straightforward language of the election code and actually operated hundreds of too few locations over previous election cycles,” he said. “It hurt disenfranchised Bexar County voters and made them travel further and stand in longer lines than they should have to. In particular, communities of color have been disadvantaged by this. Commissioners court had previously committed to not reducing the number of locations.”

Bexar County made the switch from precinct-based Election Day voting to the vote center model last November. With the vote center model, formally known as the Countywide Polling Place Program, voters can cast ballots at any polling place in the county on Election Day. Callanen also cited election code as why the Elections Department was operating fewer polling sites in the November election compared to the 2018 election in a September letter sent to the Texas Civil Rights Project.

Pozza agreed with the Texas Civil Rights Project’s argument that the Elections Department was improperly combining precincts under the vote center model. She also agreed that the Elections Department’s choice to combine certain precincts into one vote center would burden voters of color.

“Specifically, the additional closure of polling locations in 2020 will negatively impact African American and Hispanic voters in those precincts as well as all Bexar County voters,” Pozza wrote. “Therefore, these precincts are not combinable under the Texas Election Code and cannot be used to calculate the baseline for the minimum number of polling locations under the Countywide Polling Place Program.”

TOP, MOVE, and the Elections Department settled the volunteer deputy registrar issue that was included in the original lawsuit earlier this week. The Elections Department agreed Monday morning to retroactively appoint prospective volunteer registrar deputies (VDRs) who were not appointed before the Oct. 5 voter registration deadline, according to Gonzalez.

“The county offered to settle it,” he said. “It was a little silly we had to sue for them to print things out for people.”

Early voting continues through Oct. 30. Election Day is Nov. 3.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.