Bexar County residents wait to cast early ballots in the morning rain Oct. 20 outside the Julia Yates Semmes Library. Credit: B. Kay Richter for The Texas Tribune

Editor’s note: This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

There are two predominant theories of what Election Day will bring in Bexar County, as a record number of voters are expected to arrive at polling places in San Antonio and surrounding communities.

One holds that Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen, a seasoned pro considered by some to be the dean of Texas’ local election officials, has crafted a measured plan for safe and orderly voting in the state’s fourth most populous county.

The other predicts that the county is headed for a train wreck because Callanen, experienced and ethical though she may be, is an entrenched bureaucrat whose resistance to change will disenfranchise thousands of voters, mostly people of color.

Time will tell.

Refusing to be influenced by more aggressive, and politically charged, efforts to expand voting access undertaken in urban counties like Harris and Travis, Callanen has batted away several attempts by County officials to push her office into adopting new approaches to make things easier for the county’s 1,181,842 registered voters.

Her counterparts in other large counties have added drive-thru and 24-hour voting, expanded curbside voting and tried to make mail-in drop-offs more accessible, among other things.

But Callanen has resisted such moves. She’s added 18 more polling sites only on order from a federal judge, and some question how she plans to spend the millions of dollars the County Commissioners Court has pushed her way.

Some County leaders fear that a heated and highly motivating presidential election being conducted in a pandemic – with more voting by mail and big crowds and long lines feared due to COVID-19 – could put a strain on the system.

“You can’t run an election in 2020 under a global pandemic, with a public health crisis amongst us, the way you did an election in 2002 or 2004,” said Bexar County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2), who pushed for a litany of changes, largely rejected, that he said would make voting easier. “It’s just a different deal altogether.”

Callanen, with more than two decades’ experience running elections in the largely Hispanic county, said she has been guided by the desire to keep “my elections workers and my voters” safe from COVID, avoid the confusion and litigation that counties like Harris are seeing, and maintain voter confidence in a process that is steady and familiar.

“Here in Bexar County, because we’ve had things so stable for so long, it puts people’s minds at ease,” she said. “It goes back to the voters, it really does. And just from the sheer numbers that we’ve seen, they believe in the system.”

With a record-breaking 700,000 people expected to vote in this election, up to 175,000 on Election Day alone, the largely Democratic county of 2 million – 61% Hispanic – is a major force in presidential and statewide elections, and a potential player in the effort to flip the Texas House blue.

The July primary runoff drew double the number of voters that were expected, Callanen said. But staffing shortages, many caused by workers worried about COVID-19 exposure withdrawing at the last minute, shut down some polling places, causing long lines and late returns.

Some voting advocates and commissioners saw the runoff as a red flag and strengthened their push for new measures to make voting easier. They point to places like Harris and Travis counties, which are instituting unprecedented change in hopes of harnessing the wave of voter enthusiasm sweeping across Texas.

“The early warning sign to us was when Bexar County elections had to close 12 polling locations days before the July primary runoff,” said H. Drew Galloway, executive director of MOVE Texas Civic Fund, which was part of a lawsuit aimed at the County over the number of Election Day locations earlier this summer. “And that was due to a lack of poll workers, and poll workers being afraid of contracting COVID, but when you look at other counties who overhired and paid people to be ready in case they had to be, Bexar County was just not prepared for that.”

But Callanen and her supporters say the County is already succeeding in handling record early voting turnout and providing a safe environment for voters and workers.

“I keep saying, what would happen if COVID would enter this office and we all had to go quarantine?” she said. “So when you look at your long-range (plan), you have to take a stand, and you have to say, ‘This is the way we’re going to do it to keep everyone safe, period.’”

It is also, she said, important to prevent the disenfranchisement borne of confusion and “whiplash” attendant to a torrent of change in the months before an already stressful and unprecedented election.

“Anything that confuses the voters, I’m not behind,” Callanen said. “I have a difficult time with anything that’s put in once an election has kind of started. (When) someone wants to come along and change it, I find that hard.”

Callanen’s supporters point to the number of voters who had, by the morning of Oct. 26, already cast ballots voted in person – nearly 450,000, surpassing the early in-person vote in 2016 and with five days of early voting still left – as evidence that voter access is strong.

“We’re going to be OK,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson W. Wolff, a Democrat who was on the elections commission that appointed Callanen in 2005. “Just look at the numbers that are voting. That tells you that we’re doing it right. … There’s been some new things put in place to drive the vote as high as we can get it. So we’ll have our record vote here this year.”

This isn’t Houston

In Harris County, home to the Democratic stronghold of Houston, an interim county clerk has drawn national media exposure and a hailstorm of resistance and lawsuits from state and local Republicans over his myriad attempts to expand voter access in ways not seen before in Texas, including measures like drive-thru polling places and 24-hour voting sites.

On the other end of the spectrum, Callanen, a 23-year veteran of local elections who is accountable to a bipartisan election commission composed of countywide elected officials and party chairs, has embraced a more modest agenda to increase voter access this cycle: expanded early voting hours, six additional early-voting sites, online mail-in ballot tracking, the creation of “mega centers” for voting, mailing absentee ballot applications to every registered senior citizen in the county, and, last year, the move to countywide polling places.

But she has rejected several more ideas supported by the Democratic-led Commissioners Court and local voter advocates: A 50 percent increase in early voting sites, live wait times posted on the County’s website, 24-hour voting sites, expanded curbside voting, drive-thru voting, and multiple mail-in ballot drop-offs. She also declined to join the unsuccessful legal pushes for universal mail-in balloting and a last-minute return to straight-ticket voting, which was abolished by the Texas Legislature.

Many of the ideas, like straight-ticket and universal mail-in, simply came too close to the election, she said. Others, like live online wait times for voting locations, just sounded like bad ideas and could backfire, she said. She argued that multiple drop-off points were illegal and that curbside and drive-thru risks COVID exposure, the latter a position she said came from local health officials. Implementing 24-hour voting sites creates security issues and staffing problems, and more locations were unnecessary, she said.

Callanen and some other Bexar County officials, like Wolff, say the County is ready.

Four new voting “mega centers” have opened, the largest being the AT&T Center, where 40 voting machines are being used, Wolff said. The County will have 302 voting sites on Election Day.

The County has 2,500 high-tech voting machines that produce paper and electronic ballots, which Wolff said makes voting quick, reliable, and easy. It has doubled its budget for a presidential year election, Wolff said, and added millions more in funding for staffing, COVID improvements, election technology, and other needs through grants and federal funding, essentially giving the Elections Department a blank check for election expenses.

Rodriguez and some others question if Callanen plans to use all the money she’s been offered, as records show expenditures of only about $1.3 million of some $11 million available, according to budget officials. But that does not yet reflect payroll costs for the election, budget officials said, and Callanen says staffing, COVID measures, new tabulation machines, and similar costs will most certainly use up the budget.

At one point, Callanen, who said she tripled her full-time staff with temp employees for the election, told commissioners that she had “maxed out” on full-time staff for early voting because there was no more capacity to train them safely amid COVID constraints.

‘A lot to be thankful for’

Callanen is widely known and respected among Texas elections administrators. Bexar is one of 118 counties where elections are run by nonpartisan, appointed administrators like her instead of elected county clerks.

A former teacher, she takes her role as independent administrator seriously, declining to get involved in a political party and offering a vehement “Oh, God, no” when asked if she had plans to run for office.

Although Bexar County elected officials have little direct control over Callanen’s election decisions, leaders like Wolff defend the County’s elections record.

“She’s run I don’t know how many elections and ran every one of them successfully,” Wolff said. “You know, Jacque has been there a good while, she’s been set in her ways, so there’s been differences between her and the court sometimes, and we’ve tried to work them out. But look at success. And tell me where she has failed in the past. Tell me how we’re going to vote this many more, and she’s not doing that right.”

Local political stalwarts, even some of her current critics, agree that in spite of late returns and occasional long lines, Bexar County elections generally haven’t seen problems in the past.

But an increase in the number of registered voters – nearly 140,000 new ones since 2016 – combined with new statewide measures to limit voting options, such as the elimination of mobile voting sites, has put the County on the front line in protecting voters from disenfranchisement.

The advent of the pandemic and the increase in turnout has highlighted the need for voters to feel safe and counted at the polls, pitting local politicians and activists against each other over how best to do that.

The line of demarcation seems to be drawn not along party lines but between those used to doing things the old way and those frustrated at their inability to push through new ideas, said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat first elected to the Texas House in 2000.

“Fundamentally, election administration has been done very well in this county, and we’ve got a lot to be thankful for in regards to this elections office” run by Callanen, he said.

On Oct. 13, a federal district court ordered the County to create 18 additional polling sites for Election Day after finding that the County Elections Department had potentially disenfranchised people of color by closing several when it went to a countywide system and combined sites. Before the ruling, the County had the same number of polling sites that it had in 2019 and fewer than it had for several cycles before it had gone to countywide polling.

The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project on behalf of MOVE Texas, the Texas Organizing Project, and a voter. The suit accused the County of years of providing too few polling places, something the judge agreed with in her opinion.

Callanen defended the number of polling sites at the time, but she and the County declined to appeal the ruling and will have the additional locations in place for Election Day.

The biggest impediment for Bexar County voters, Wolff said, is what he called systemic voter repression from the state through decisions like not allowing universal mail balloting, not allowing COVID-19 to be grounds for requesting mail-in ballots, and the lack of online voter registration, among other things.

But even that, he said, doesn’t seem to be holding Bexar County voters down this cycle.

“We have more restrictions than any state in the nation,” Wolff said. “Even though all those are in place, people are just saying, ‘Goddammit, I’m going to get out there and vote.’ And they are. Those (repression) techniques have worked in the past, but they’re not working today.”

The disagreement is not just about this election, but how the County’s voting apparatus will be run moving forward, as rolls and turnout increase, and as pandemic protocols and technological advancements change the way people vote, said Martinez Fischer.

“The election of 2020 is about two things,” he said. “It’s about the heroic efforts of the voters, despite the obstacles and barriers and roadblocks, and how they have persevered and are voting in record numbers. This is a tale of that, and it’s also a tale of looking into the future of elections and everything you can do to expand the franchise.”

Richard Gonzalez, chair of the Bexar County SD 19 Tejano Democrats, said the county’s success or failure this November will determine whether his group pushes for replacing Callanen after the election. But voter access will almost definitely be on the statewide Democratic platform when the party convenes again in 2022, much of that push inspired by the actions, or lack thereof, in his home county, said Gonzalez, a State Democratic executive committeeman who is chairman of the platform committee for the next two years.

“I know we’ll be bringing this up as we go forward with the next two years to bring up our platform,” he said. “Voting accessibility is a major issue that we need to be focused on.”

Martinez Fischer gets why Callanen’s decisions are cautious, he said, but he also understands the desire of many to push new ideas.

“You’re seeing sort of a shift in County politics — younger members coming in, new ideas, bold visions, and I think there was an honest attempt to expand the (voting) franchise and provide multiple opportunities,” Martinez Fischer said. “I think Jacque has done a really good job. She’s kind of got this process on autopilot, she’s got everybody trained a certain way, she’s got her game plan, and then she’s handed a new offense book without enough time to learn the offense, so it’s understandable. But make no mistake, the future of voting should rest upon everything we can do to expand the franchise.”

Disclosure: AT&T and MOVE Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.

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Karen Brooks Harper, The Texas Tribune

Karen Brooks Harper is a general assignments reporter for The Texas Tribune.