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Bexar County Election Sees Increased Voter Turnout, Some Kinks In New System

Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen demonstrates how to use the new ballot tabulator the week before the November 2019 election.
Joey Palacios | Texas Public Radio
Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen demonstrates how to use the new ballot tabulator the week before the November 2019 election.

More than 106,000 Bexar County ballots were cast in the joint election by the end of Tuesday night, including early and Election Day votes. That’s a sharp increase over the last similar election in 2017, which saw 38,000 total votes cast.

The county used its new voting machines, which require using a touch screen that then prints out a ballot which must be fed into a tabulator. It was the first time residents could vote at any polling site in the county instead of an assigned location. However, the increased turnout caused some sites to run low or out of the needed paper ballots.

Bexar County has around 1,114,000 registered voters. Turnout for the 2019 election was about 10%. The last constitutional amendment election in 2017 saw a 3.7% turnout. 

“Yesterday (Election Day) alone we had 56,000 — where in 2017 we barely had 18,000 people (on Election Day),” Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen said.

While it's an increase for a similar election, it still falls very short of recent even-numbered year elections. Last year’s November election, a midterm, saw a 50% turnout amid high profile contests like the race for one of Texas U.S. Senate seats. The 2016 November election, which saw the election of President Trump, had a 57% turnout. 

She deemed the voting center model a success, and she added the process of number crunching isn't yet complete.

“We have to do a lot of work now to see how many people took advantage of that, how many people moved around,” she said. “I can tell you anecdotally, right off the top, the decision to keep our early voting sites was open was monumental.”

She said some of those early voting sites that were converted to election day voting centers saw more than 500 people on Election Day. For example, during the May election, 318 people voted at the Brookhollow library on Election Day while 891 people voted there on Tuesday. Cody Library saw 129 voters in May’s Election day but saw 644 for the November election. 

There were issues that needed to be worked out involving the new system.

“Did we have challenges? You bet we had challenges,” Callanen said.

A voter named Jeremy, who asked TPR not to use his last name, experienced one of those challenges when he went to vote at the Gordon Hartman Center off Bitters Road around 6 p.m. on Tuesday. He said the site had run out of paper ballots.


Credit Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
The new voting machines used by Bexar County. A paper ballot is inserted by the voter, and selections are made on screen. The machine prints the choices on the ballot.

“We started hearing from some of the judges and the clerks that they had run out of paper ballots that nobody really knew what that would mean, but there was still voting going on,” Jeremy said.

Those paper ballots are newly required part of the voting machines. Voters make their selections on screen, and the machine prints out a card that must be fed into a tabulator for the vote to count.

Callanen said some sites were running low on cards but couldn’t immediately confirm how many, if any, completely ran out of cards.

“We had times where we were getting very short on card stock in some of the locations but we have a great set of staff. We have technicians that are out in the field, they would drive down here [to the elections office] and pick more cards and replenish them,” she said.

Jeremy said votes were still being cast at his polling site, and no one was told they couldn’t vote. Election officials were using a machine reserved for curbside voting which Callanen confirmed.

“When we got down to those last cards no voter would be turned away because every one of our sides had an electronic machine that we took out to curbside,” she added.  

Bexar County’s new voting machines use a blended system which allows for the use of the paper and electronic ballots to be counted. The curbside machine is reserved for people who are unable to enter a polling site due to disability.


Credit Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Voters in Bexar County must now submit this printed ballot into a tabulator before their vote is counted. This example displays mock selections.

Jeremy said he waited in line for about an hour to use that machine before more paper ballots arrived.

“As I was third from the front of the line, a sheriff’s deputy came in [and] dropped off a stack of new paper ballots. This was probably around 7 or 7:10 (p.m.),” he said.

He said he was able to cast his votes about ten minutes later. But he questioned why there was a lack of the needed paper.

“I don’t know if it’s just a flood of brand new people using the sites, whether it’s they didn’t print enough paper ballots, whether it’s more people than they expected to show up at different sites,” he said.

Voting supplies were stocked at each site using a formula, Callanen said. The elections administration took the number of Election Day voters at each site in 2017, plus any new voter registrations and increased that by 25% to determine how many votes a site could expect.

One site in 2017 only had seven Election Day voters. It received enough supplies for 50 potential voters in 2019, Callanen said.

Any sites that looked like they were running low would be resupplied as quickly as possible, she said.

“It was a great lesson learned. I know that’s not enough for the people who were standing in line, and for that we’re sorry, I’m sorry, but we’ll get better. We will be prepared. This taught us that things are going to be different in 2020,” Callanen said.

The county ordered about 150,000 of the cards needed for the voting machines for this election. Callanen hinted for the next election cycles she would order well over one million slips.

Additionally, while full county results were expected to be completed at about 10:30 p.m., they came two hours later.

Bexar County was among a group of Texas counties with a population of more than 100,000 people to use the voting center model for the first time this election. The others included Comal, Hays, Tarrant and Dallas counties, which include the cities of New Braunfels, San Marcos, Fort Worth and Dallas, respectively. Henderson, Jones, Atascosa and Kendall counties were allowed to use it for the first time as well.

About 70 counties use voting centers statewide according to a list on the Texas Secretary of State’s website.

Counties who participated in the pilot must apply for “successful status” with the secretary of state’s office, which Callanen say she “absolutely” plans to do.

The elections office has 30 days to submit its application. After approval from the secretary of state, Bexar County will be allowed to keep the voting center model for all elections going forward.

Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules.

Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules