An Interview with Tarrant County Election Administrator
This election season may have been the last one for the current voting machines. It may also be the last one for scattered voting places in Tarrant County. The current Tarrant County Elections Administrator is Hieder Garcia, and he has different ideas about voting places that make it easier for county residents to vote. This means that perceived voter suppression, by moving voting sites around the county, will come to an end in the upcoming November elections.
Below, Garcia outlines his outlook on the future of voting in Tarrant County.
TC: What are the duties of an election administrator?
Garcia: The responsibilities of the Elections Administrator (EA) are defined in sections 31.043, 31.044 and 31.045 of the Texas Elections Code, which can be summarized in:
- Registering voters and maintaining the voter rolls for the County.
- Conducting the elections, including:
- Preparing all ballots and voting equipment.
- Hiring and training all poll workers.
- Evaluating the feasibility of all locations proposed to server as voting locations.
- Keeping all records that are creating during the conduct of the elections.
TC: You are said to be in favor of voting anywhere in the county. Would you eliminate precinct voting centers in favor of more centralized polls?
Garcia: Going to Vote Centers allows the County to reduce the number of locations available, but it is an option, not a mandate. The theory behind it is that giving voters more places where each one of them can vote reduces the need for having locations close to home. In many cases people will start to vote in locations that are more convenient in their everyday life (e.g. near work) rather than at the one and only place near home that they must right now. And as that happens, some locations start showing very low turnout, making them candidates to be closed in the future.
TC: Would that mean you would use early voting polling places?
Garcia: Our intent is to find more locations that can be used though Early Voting and Election Day, and that are also available in all types of elections. The goal is to get to a point where voters don’t have to know what kind of election it is in order to know what location to go to, but that they build this habit of always going to a specific location that is open in every election.
TC: Would these polling places be static? So, people would get used to semi-permanent or permanent polling places.
Garcia: Like the previous answer, the more static we can get them to be, the better. Keep in mind that it requires a lot of cooperation from all the entities involved. In the Primary Elections the Parties choose the locations, in the May Elections it is the entities (Cities ISDs, etc.) who choose the locations, and in November it is the County. Creating this consistent list of locations requires all of them to cooperate in identifying the idea locations.
TC: How could this be accomplished? Through contracts with private locations?
Garcia: That is an option, although the ideal situation is to use public buildings to save money.
TC: Would these polling places make the scheduling of volunteers any easier or more cost effective for the county?
Garcia: The main reason to implement vote centers, in my opinion, is voter convenience. Second to that, it is true that money can be saved by closing locations that have very low turnout. A typical polling place of 5 poll workers can cost about $3,000 to run on election day. So, if you have a location where only 50 people vote, you just spent $60 per voter to set up the location. If you were to close that location and have those 50 voters cast their ballots at another location that would have usually processed 500 other voters, you just processed 550 voters for the same $3,000, about $5.45 per voter. Having said that, the savings are only considered if closing a location is not determined to have a potentially negative impact on the voters of the community.
TC: I understand that the contract with HART for their electronic voting booths will expire soon. You have said there may be a way to get electronic voting machines that leave a paper trail. Is this true and how would it work?
Garcia: We are currently evaluating 3 proposals from vendors of voting equipment, the idea is that the election of May 4, 2019 is the last one with the current technology. The RFP we published asked vendors to bring an offer for a “HYBRID” voting system. This is a system where voters start by making their choices in an electronic device, which produces a printer ballot when the voter is done. This printed ballot is not counted at the time of printing. The voter has the opportunity to inspect the printed ballot, and after agreeing that the ballot reflects the choices selected, the voter will insert this printed ballot into a scanner that will count it. It is called a hybrid because it is a system of electronic voting, with a paper trail that is scanned to be counted. Our goal is to decide on a vendor by the end of April in the latest scenario.
TC: Is there funding in the county for new machines and new polling places? How much would your new system cost the taxpayers?
Garcia: The County has set aside $14,000,000 for the acquisition of the new voting equipment. As per the polling places, they will not affect the budget.
TC: Is there anything you want to add to speak to voters? Garcia: I am a strong believer that local government has a huge impact on people’s lives, so elections matter, and they matter a lot. I suggest you make sure your voter registration is up to date. Take the time to look up the information on our website by going to https://gisit.tarrantcounty.com/TCVL/ or give us a call at (817) 831-8683. Be sure to explore what people and or issues are being presented in upc