For the better part of a year, Zach Dolling analyzed Texas' 254 counties for a handful of election code violations.
The lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project discovered that nearly three dozen counties — from urban to rural, with cities big and small — broke election laws. That's because the number of polling places in 2018 was as much as 270 below what Texas requires.
“These 33 counties collectively have about 4 million registered voters in them. So, in one sense, it affected all of those voters,” Dolling said. “Because for every missing polling place, that means more longer lines, more people at the remaining polling places.”
Dolling sent counties demand letters about their violations — which ranged from not having a voting center in an area largely made up of people of color, to improperly combining precincts, to having more than 5,000 registered voters in a precinct and reducing polling places or voting centers below the legal amount.
Some counties were embarrassed to hear from him, not knowing they were out of compliance, others didn’t respond. But most did and committed to make changes before the November election.
“And then there were a couple of counties that even after a back-and-forth, basically said, it's just too hard for us to fix these issues right now. We're just going to wait until after the census and the redistricting that follows that,” he said.
Pam Oldendorf, elections administrator in Caldwell county, said they only had 12 of the 16 polling places required because she doesn’t have enough poll workers.
This November they will have 17 polling places. But she said that could be tough given that most of her poll workers are over 65 and there is a pandemic going on.
“I'm hoping to have the manpower, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I can only do so much, you know, I still have to stay in compliance by having the proper amount of people to work it.
Collin County, a Republican stronghold outside of Dallas, was short about one-third of the voting centers it is required by law to have. Ultimately they committed to opening more than 31.
“Based on the recent redistricting of overpopulated precincts, we will be establishing more than 99 vote centers in that election,” said Bruce Sherbet, Collin County Elections Administrator, in an email to TCRP.
The minority party, the Democrats, aren’t making any noise despite the lack of facilities. Mike Rawlins,the county chair, said he sees the process running pretty smoothly, and attributes the county’s shortfall to a lack of adequate facilities, especially in more rural areas.
He saw that first hand when he assisted with the recent primary.
“We tried to get a location in Princeton (a small rural town) for the primary in March, but there just wasn't one,” he said. “City Hall was about the only place that qualified and wasn't available. They had to go like 5 miles away.”
The TCRP’s work showed that McLennan and Smith counties didn’t provide voting centers in heavily minority areas of their largest cities Waco and Tyler in 2018, raising concerns about violations of the Voting Rights Act. Both counties committed to adding them.
The Secretary of State is supposed to be vigilant about these issues especially given Texas’ history of gerrymandering and voter suppression.
"It is the duty of the Office of the Secretary of State under the law, to be monitoring Texas counties for compliance with law. And it's pretty clear from what we found that the Secretary of State has not been doing that," said Dolling of the Texas Civil Rights Project.
In all, the TCRP said it has received firm commitments of more than 70 additional polling places, but it is worried that the lack of state oversight could mean dozens of counties that violated the election code in 2018 may do so again this November.
In a letter sent to the Secretary of State Ruth Hughs this week, the Texas Civil Rights Project asks the state to ensure all counties have enough polling places through monitoring and advising and to take legal action if necessary.
The secretary of state did not respond to TPR’s request for comment.
Dolling points out that he only evaluated a handful of laws, and that there are many more they are concerned about.
“There are many other rules under the Texas election code that I am 100% certain counties are violating but that we didn't have the resources to look into,” he said.
The letter comes as many across the country have been alarmed by polling place closures.
Texas counties are allowed to close as many as half of polling places when they transition to county-wide voting. The system allows residents to vote at any voting center, instead of solely in their precinct. It is supposed to be more convenient for voters and saves counties money. And according to this recent analysis, the state isn’t ensuring counties keep open the 50% minimum.
TCRP has not been opposed to these programs in the past, but it isn’t clear what all the impacts are.
“It’s extremely important that every single person has a fair shot at voting,” said Jerónimo Cortina, a University of Houston professor.
His research shows the farther you move a polling place the less likely people are to go vote, especially among low-income voters — which in Texas is more likely to be Latino Voters. He said this was likely due to not having access to a car.
"The state cannot impose certain policies that are going to have a differential effect, depending on your socioeconomic status, your race and ethnicity," said Cortina. "That you cannot do when you're talking about elections, because that's the bedrock of our democracy."
TCRP’s analysis is purely about the numbers, not about intent, and largely not about impacts on constitutionally protected groups.
But in addition to calling out the state on its lack of oversight, he hopes it inspires local groups to do their own digging and ensure they aren’t being discriminated against.
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