A Republican-led effort at the Capitol would do away with the places where 22,934 Travis County residents cast their ballots in last November’s general election.
That’s just under 5 percent of all votes cast in the county. But before you knee-jerk react to Dallas state Sen. Don Huffines and blast his Senate Bill 703 as just another GOP voter suppression effort, let’s hear him out and see if this makes any sense.
The bill is a bit tough to follow (at least for me), and Huffines acknowledges it might need some tweaking but his goal is clear and clearly delineated in the bill’s caption: “Relating to prohibiting movable early voting polling places.”
Many counties use those to make voting as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. So where’s the downside? Huffines says it’s not that movable polling places can move, it’s to where they’re moved.
“What we’re trying to solve is manipulation of the result of an election by moving the polling location to benefit one side or the other,” he said.
He’s particularly suspicious about school district bond elections. He claims school officials, seeking approval for bonds for a new football stadium, have put mobile early voting places at the old stadium on Friday nights, eager to connect with fans who’d like a new stadium.
“When you move the mobile polling booth to the football stadium on Friday nights, that does seem to have an impact on the election results,” Huffines said, offering no examples but adding: “There’s no question they do it.”
Nope, says Texas Association of School Boards spokesman Dax Gonzalez, whose organization opposes the bill.
“I don’t have data on where districts place mobile voting stations, but I would think districts are being smart and efficient in putting locations where large numbers of people gather,” he said. “In many communities across the state, Friday night football games would be a smart choice for reaching voters. And just because they’re watching football doesn’t mean they want to raise their property taxes to do so.”
State Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, this week filed HB 1773, which, among other things, would require all early voting locations in any election that includes bond issues or tax hikes to remain at the same locations throughout the early voting period. The bill also says a tax increase or bond election would be void “unless more than 25 percent of the registered voters” show up.
I went back to Huffines for clarification when I found out that what Travis County calls “mobile” early voting places might be different than the “movable” early voting places targeted in his bill. Travis County sets up temporary early voting places — in addition to permanent ones — at various locations for a day or several days. The “mobile” early voting places are put in permanent buildings — recreation centers, senior citizen facilities, state office buildings, outlying areas, etc. — not in trailers or trucks that are moved around.
Huffines said his intention — though the bill says polling places “may not be located in a movable structure” — is to ban all temporary early voting places, including those in permanent buildings, such as the ones in which 22,934 Travis County voters cast ballots last November.
“I do not want polling locations moving around that might influence the outcome of an election, one way or the other,” he said, adding that temporary early voting places in permanent buildings could be problematic depending on “who’s making the decision, what building they’re going to be in and who’s in the building.”
“I’m not making the assumption those voters wouldn’t vote otherwise,” he said. “I’m thinking these folks would still vote. I want them to vote.”
The League of Women Voters of Texas, ever watchful for efforts to make it more difficult to vote, believes SB 703 would do just that.
“At the core of our existence is the belief that every Texas citizen should be able to participate in our democracy with his or her vote,” said Cinde Weatherby of Austin, the group’s voting rights and elections issues chair. “Research I’ve seen has shown that the No. 1 reason given by those who don’t vote is ‘I don’t have the time.’ The mobile voting process addresses that directly.”
And Weatherby added: “To my knowledge we have not observed any negatives related to offering mobile voting locations, other than there being a demand for more of it.”
But the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, in September offered testimony to the House Committee on Elections to the contrary. James Quintero, director of the foundation’s Center for Local Governance, said lawmakers should end “rolling polling.”
“This practice, either intentionally or unintentionally, is far too susceptible to abuse,” Quintero testified, “allowing for local officials to target certain voting populations to achieve a predetermined outcome.”
The foundation hasn’t taken a position on the Huffines bill.
Michael Winn, Travis County director of elections, said mobile early voting places are “a great benefit” for voters. He said the county isn’t ready to take an official position on Huffines’ bill, “but I think it would have an impact on our process.”
And he doesn’t mean a positive impact.
In last November’s general election, Travis County had 91 mobile voting locations at various times during the 12 days of early voting. That includes some that returned to various locations multiple times. The locations included recreation centers, state office buildings, senior citizen facilities and some in outlying areas.
Would banning mobile early voting places make it more difficult for some folks to vote?
“Most definitely,” Winn said. “It would cause an impact on the process.”
No doubt. I’m open to hearing more about this, but, absent more solid evidence of abuse of the current system, SB 703 sure sounds like an overkill response.
That seems to be popular these days.