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Drive-Through Voting? Texas Gets Creative In Its Scramble For Polling Places

Pedestrians pass signs near a polling site in San Antonio in February.
Eric Gay
Pedestrians pass signs near a polling site in San Antonio in February.

Caitlin Boehne wasn't too happy that she had to vote in person during a recent primary runoff in Austin, Texas.

Boehne is under 65 and isn't disabled, so voting by mail wasn't available to her under current Texas law. She says it was a frustrating situation.

"The workers, the voters — everybody has to risk their health in order to participate in the democratic process," she says. "It's astounding."

All in all, though, Boehne says voting in person went as well as it could during a pandemic. She voted on the first day of early voting. So there were no lines, and everything looked pretty safe.

"I was really impressed," she says. "Everything was very spaced out — lots of hand sanitizer, protective equipment and stuff."

This is what local election officials across Texas are hoping to replicate on a much larger scale in November. But now that the coronavirus pandemic has made some past polling locations, like grocery stores and nursing homes, less safe this year, officials are considering less conventional options as they scramble to find enough polling sites before the presidential election.

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Texas is one of very few states that is not expanding mail-in voting during the pandemic, which means most Texans will cast their ballots in person this fall.

Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center's Voting Rights and Elections Program, says adequate polling places are going to be important across the United States. She says they will be key even in states that are expanding mail-in voting.

"Polling places are the way that many, many Americans will be voting on Election Day," she says. "There are some people for whom it is really the only realistic option."

That includes people without reliable mail service, people with visual impairments or people who need language assistance, Pérez says.

In Texas, though, access to a polling site is going to be crucial to most voters.

"I think polling places are going to play an outsized role in Texas elections particularly because Texas statewide officials have been aggressive about limiting who can take advantage ... of vote by mail," Pérez says.

Texas officials are, however, giving votersmore time to vote in person. The governor recently extended the state's early voting period from 12 days to 18 for the presidential election.

Because of the pandemic, though, logistics for choosing in-person polling sites is going to be more complicated.

Ali Lozano, the voting rights outreach coordinator for the Texas Civil Rights Project, says local officials have to plan for a lot more ahead of this particular election.

"It's of the utmost importance that election administrators and county officials start preparing now," she says, "to make sure that we have enough polling locations, enough poll workers and that everybody knows what they need to be doing in order to make everyone feel safe."

In Austin, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir is among the 254 local officials searching for safe in-person voting sites. She said she plans to have about 35 early voting centers and 200 Election Day voting sites.

So far, DeBeauvoir says, finding locations for those sites has been a challenge.

"A lot of the owners of the facilities we want won't give us an answer for sure one way or another that we can or cannot use the facility," she says.

Some locations are completely off the table. The state has advised against the use of nursing homes and senior centers and suggests moving to larger venues when possible.

For example, polling sites at grocery stores were super-popular in Austin because they were so convenient. But now, DeBeauvoir says, the pandemic has made grocery stores a terrible idea.

"There's no way to socially distance the voters, especially from the shoppers," she says. "And it was just too close, too crowded. It was never going to work."

During this last election, DeBeauvoir says, she relied heavily on schools. Now that schools may be reopening at some point in the fall, though, it's up in the air.

Chris Davis, the elections administrator for Williamson County, in Central Texas, says polling places that primarily serve older voters are also a bad idea these days.

"We are relatively certain we are going to take off the table nursing homes and assisted living that we have used and enjoyed — and the residents had enjoyed in the past — as Election Day polling places," he says.

To replace these former sites, election officials are going to have to get creative, Davis says.

"It's not going to be uniform from one county to another," he says.

For example, Davis is looking for open-air options in an effort to keep the possible spread of the coronavirus down.

"We are considering sites that we can have kind of a robust drive-through voting," he says, "[maybe] a defunct or closed bank with several teller lanes ... perhaps parking garages. Something that can give one-stop service."

DeBeauvoir says she's looking at setting up polling stations in lobbies, hotel ballrooms and amenity centers at apartment complexes.

Where these new polling sites are located matters too.

Pérez says election officials also have to be mindful of how voting locations are distributed within their counties.

"They need to make sure that there's enough polling places in the communities that need them," she says, "especially in communities that are underserved or have low rates of vote-by-mail usage."

Voting rights groups worry that not having enough polling sites could lead to longer lines during the upcoming election.

Texas has roughly 750 fewer polling sites than it did about a decade ago, so Lozano says many counties are already at risk.

Plus, voting during the pandemic is going to take longer than it did in 2016 because of added safety measures.

"And that's if people keep the same amount of polling locations," Lozano says. "If we have even less polling locations with these added steps, it's just a perfect storm for problems that is absolutely going to lead to longer lines if we do not substantively prepare now."

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5

Ashley Lopez joined KUT in January 2016. She covers politics and health care, and is part of the NPR-Kaiser Health News reporting collaborative. Previously she worked as a reporter at public radio stations in Louisville, Ky.; Miami and Fort Myers, Fla., where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.