Elections department gearing up for long ballot, high turnout

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

The Williamson County Elections Department is in countdown mode, working feverishly as the days tick by toward what is expected to be one of the most unique and busiest elections in memory.

In what County Elections Administrator Chris Davis calls the perfect storm, longer ballots, higher anticipated turnout, a longer voting window and the COVID-19 virus are all expected to have an impact on both voters and election workers come October. But he also believes there is a simple thing every voter can do to help ease the process for everyone.

“They should take care of their business early, whether that business is voting by mail, absentee or voting in person,” Davis said. “They’re in control. They can determine how much time they allot themselves to vote.”

Davis wants to see early voting numbers increase to make coping with the higher numbers and challenges that brings more manageable. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott added an additional week to early voting to help ease the strain on polling locations due to COVID-19.

“Voters need to take advantage of the 18 days of early voting starting on Oct. 13,” he said. “While we normally see a good 60 percent to two-thirds of in-person voters voting early, I want to see that number be higher. I’d love to see it be 80 percent of all voting in-person to be early voters.

“It’s hard for me personally to accept the excuse that ‘Well, I didn’t have time, I work or the kids have school’ if we’re going 18 straight days of 12-hours every day and five on Sundays. That’s a lot of time for everybody, it’s a lot of time to ask our poll workers to work.”

In 2018, there were 336,148 registered voters in the county for the November election with a 62.25 percent turnout. In the last presidential election, in 2016, there were 306,811 registered voters and a 67.1 percent turnout. The number of registered voters has only continued to increase, and predicting how many will show up to vote is a challenge.

“It’s like an equation and that’s one of the most important numbers is just the number of voters that we anticipate to show up,” Davis said. “We’ve got 362,000, depending on what day you ask, registered voters in Williamson County, more than it’s ever been. And there will still be a rush of people to get registered before the deadline, which I think is Oct. 5. That’s a number we’re concerned about and how we handle that.”

In addition to ever-growing numbers of voters is the fact that this November’s election will include races from the presidency down to local races that would usually be decided in May elections, but were postponed last spring.

“The length of the ballot is going to be a concern due to the number of participating entities,” Davis said. “Along with president and senator and congressman, and all these down-ballot state, district and county races we’ve got what were already going to be city, school district and utility district elections that were set to occur in November, as well as those entities that have postponed their elections to November. A lot of those entities not only have candidate elections, they’ve got charter amendment elections, ballot proposition measures, and it is going to make for a very long ballot.”

It will be lengthy, and a long-time method of voting quickly has been removed beginning with this election.

“This will be the first general election without straight-ticket voting,” he said. “That was outlawed in 2017 and delayed implementation until this election. That time-saving measure a voter has had in previous even-numbered Novembers they will not have any longer.”

For voters who plan to cast their ballot by mail, Davis’ suggestion is the same – do so early. The elections department website has information on how to request a mail ballot, and the deadline to request one is Oct. 23. The department has already received more requests for ballot by mail than in any previous election.

“We’re getting a lot of calls from folks interested in voting by mail and clearly they’re doing it for the first time, so they’re asking a lot of questions that we’re trying to answer on the phone, but also provide an FAQ list on our website so they can get their own answers,” Davis said.

The plan is to have 19 early voting locations across the county, including the Liberty Hill Municipal Court building at 2801 RR 1869. There will also be about 60 election day polling locations.

But due to space restraints and the need to keep people socially distanced, there could be fewer machines at locations.

“We’re just trying to get to the best equilibrium on both sides of the equation on how we can get voters in and out, because we don’t want them spending more time than they have to in line and certainly in voting,” Davis said. “It is clear it is becoming this perfect storm now where voters can spend a lot of time in close proximity to each other during focused periods of time.”

And some locations that are traditionally used for voting are no longer options.

“We’ve dropped some, being nursing homes, assisted living facilities, that are just off the table now given that we’re operating in a pandemic situation,” Davis said.

One benefit is the newest voting equipment in the county, which will be used for its fourth election this time around.

“The new machines are working great and they give us a lot of flexibility that we’re going to depend on in terms of making sure each polling place has the right number of machines,” Davis said. “If we overestimate or over-deploy machines at one place, with these machines we can take from one site to add to another site throughout early voting and even on Election Day. That’s a huge flexibility. With the old machines, whatever we sent out we were stuck with and if we guessed wrong at a place that’s just the way it would be and voters had to suck it up.”

As far as how to deal with the challenges of COVID-19 during the election, Davis said the July primary runoff was helpful in giving his department a glimpse into what it might be like on a smaller scale.

“The Primary runoff election was a good kind of election to test out some practices and procedures,” Davis said. “They say it’s better to be lucky than good and we were lucky in a couple of ways in that not only in a primary runoff it’s typically a slower election, but this time it was really slow because there was only one party having a runoff, the Democratic Party, and on that ballot there were only three races. We could actually put in place processes and procedures to look out for the health and safety of both poll workers and the voters. I think it went really well.”

The longer early voting period could help ease the pressure of voter volume each day, but it will still be necessary to make sure social distancing is observed.

“Whether they’re in line or checking in to vote or actually voting, it is something that is key that we always want to really get right,” Davis said. “That means that if the space is going to be the same we’ve got to have fewer machines in a space or look for larger spaces, and that’s what we’re trying to do for November is look for larger spaces that can accommodate socially distanced machines and enough machines throughout early voting and Election Day.”

The department has lots of personal protective equipment and supplies to meet the need.

“We were fortunate enough to have that with the help of the county emergency department and the tax office being instrumental in securing a whole bunch of supplies for county departments and we used a lot of that during the election,” Davis said.

While Davis hopes everyone chooses to wear a mask when they go to vote, he reminds everyone they can’t require it.

“One of the unfortunate things is we can’t require voters to have masks when they come to vote,” Davis said. “We encourage them to, we’ve put out a really good video about what a voter can expect at a polling place. We want to reduce the points of contact, going as much contactless as we can at the polling places, reducing the places a succession of voters have to touch.”

Perhaps the most important piece of the election puzzle will be the poll workers, and while Davis is confident in the poll workers they have, the higher expected turnout and longer voting period means having additional poll workers is going to be important.

“With 18 days of early voting and almost 12 hours every day it is high stress,” Davis said. “We’re requiring our poll workers to take at least two days off in that 18-day period and not have them be back-to-back days because it is just a lot to ask. It’s bit us in the behind having poll workers at the end of their ropes and mostly drained and it doesn’t serve the voters well.”

Anyone interested in working as a poll worker can find an application on the election department’s website.

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