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Dallas, Tarrant voters slow to embrace election changes

A change allowing voters in Dallas and Tarrant counties to vote at any polling location is slow to catch on.

Most Dallas County voters — 54% — chose to vote at their traditional precinct this fall rather than take advantage of countywide voting, according to new data from election officials.

At the same time, a little more than half — 50.81% — of Tarrant County residents who voted in November did so at a location other than the one to which they previously were assigned.

These results are among the first wave of data from two of Texas’ largest counties that for the first time offered countywide voting. The Texas secretary of state gave Dallas and Tarrant counties preliminary approval earlier this year to shift from the precinct model to regional vote centers. Now both counties are racing toward a Dec. 5 deadline to file a request to make the changes permanent.

Dallas officials worked until 2 a.m. Monday to finish a draft of their letter that county commissioners approved Tuesday. Tarrant County’s commissioners were briefed on the results of the election before Thanksgiving; however, Tarrant County had not yet submitted its letter to the state Tuesday.

If they and the other seven counties that made the switch this fall are allowed to continue this model of elections, nearly three out of every four Texans will live in a county that has abandoned the traditional precinct system. Other counties that were given conditional approval to use vote centers are Bexar, Comal, Hays, Atascosa, Henderson, Jones and Kendall. Harris County began using voting centers this year and has already been given approval by the state to make it permanent.

Supporters of countywide voting argue the system can help drive up voter turnout because it gives voters more flexibility regarding where to vote. However, even advocates of increasing access to voting worry that the slightest change to long-established voting patterns can decrease turnout.

Counties that move to vote centers are allowed to close a certain percentage of polling locations. Both Dallas and Tarrant counties pledged to keep the same number of locations opened through the 2020 election, which is expected to have unprecedented participation, in order to learn where voters prefer to vote.

Officials and party leaders in both counties cautiously celebrated the transition that included record-level turnout for an odd-year election. Nearly 10% of Dallas County and about 12% of Tarrant voters participated in the constitutional election. Odd year elections, which don’t include high-profile races, typically draw smaller crowds.

Darl Easton, chairman of the Tarrant County Republicans, regularly volunteers on Election Day as a judge. In previous elections, he said, he would redirect dozens of individuals who showed up at the wrong polling place.

That didn’t happen this November.

“Overall, the convenience for voters increased substantially,” he said.

Carol Donovan, chairwoman of the Dallas County Democratic Party, said her office received far fewer complaints about the election this year.

“People were happy about it,” she said. “People felt like it took the stress out of voting.”

While a lower percentage of people in Dallas County than Tarrant County voted at a precinct outside the one where they live, election officials still considered it a win.

“I’m pretty pleased with 46%,” said Toni Pippins-Poole, Dallas County’s election officer. “This is going to really be very popular, as we go along.”

Only Dallas County District 4, which includes most of southern county, had more than 50% of voters choosing a nontraditional polling location.

Not everyone in North Texas is pleased with the change: Margaret Borchert, a Fort Worth resident spoke out against vote centers at a Tarrant County Commissioners Court meeting last month. She suggested that making voting easier weakened democracy and eroded the sense of neighborhoods.

“Now we don’t have an election community,” Borchert said.

Voters and officials in Tarrant County also expressed concern about the new voting machines which were also put in place this year. At a Tarrant County commissioners meeting they said volunteer election judges lacked training, the machines were heavy and difficult to set up, and paper ballots jammed, requiring voters to repeat the entire process.

“Like any first time, there is what you plan and then there is what happens on the field,” said Heider Garcia, Tarrant County’s elections administrator. “We’re going to be adjusting some procedures.”

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