State Senate, including Nichols, wants to stop county's new voting centers
Last updated 5/16/2023 at 6:52pm
Orange County used a federal grant to buy equipment and worked months to get central vote centers, where all county registered voters may cast a ballot, no matter where they live.
The first time to use the vote centers was for the May 6 city council and school board races. Local officials endorsed the central voting system. The Orange County elections administrator touted the method as way "to improve access and increase turnout on Election Day.
Now, the Texas Legislature might eliminate central voting centers. The Texas Senate has passed SB 990 and sent it to the House Elections Committee. The bill must be approved by the Texas House of Representatives and then signed by Governor Greg Abbott before becoming law.
District 3 Senator Robert Nichols, a Republican who represents Orange County, voted to eliminate central voting. State legislative records show the vote was down party lines, with only Republicans supporting the elimination and Democrats opposing the cut.
County Judge John Gothia said the system will save the county money by cutting back on the number of neighborhood voting boxes and paying fewer election officials.
If the state allows the central voting system to remain, the county can go down from 34 neighborhood boxes to 23, a decrease in 11 boxes. Each voting box requires hiring an election judge plus several poll workers.
For many years, each registered county voter had to go to their assigned neighborhood voting precinct box. Sometimes the boxes change from election to election, making people mad and having to travel to a new site.
Under the central voting centers system, any registered county voter may go to any one of the county voting sites. For many years, early voting has operated that way.
The cutback on the number of neighborhood voting boxes on Election Day will also help the county because schools are concerned about security and student safety. Schools have traditionally been set up as polling spots, but now, because of the increase in school shootings, school administrators want to restrict the members of the public coming near students.
Orange County Commissioners Court approved creating central voting centers this past December and the move was approved by the Texas Secretary of State. May 6 was the first time the system was used in the handful of city council and school board races. For instance, someone living in Orange wanting to vote for the council and the West Orange-Cove school board could vote at the Bridge City polling site, and vice versa.
During a public hearing for the new central system, Precinct 4 Commissioner Robert Viator said city leaders in Rose City and Pine Forest were enthusiastic about the change.
Representatives from the city of Vidor, along with Vidor ISD Superintendent Dr. Jay Killgo also endorsed the system, as did Orange City Councilor Terrie Salter.
County Judge Gothia said the county has wanted central voting centers for a number of years, but could not afford the equipment to install the system. Federal Covid pandemic grants allowed the county to invest in voting machines required to accommodate central voting.
The county used $600,000 in the federal grants to buy the necessary equipment and went through the legal procedures to set up central voting.
Orange County's voting machines allow polling site workers to set different ballots based on voters' residency. The voting machines register when a voter checks in and lets election workers at other boxes know the person has voted.
Voters press screens to choose a candidate. They are given a chance to review their votes before submitting them. Once a voter proofreads their ballot, they print out a paper ballot copy that can be reviewed again and taken to an election worker to correct a mistake, if needed. If the voter approves the paper ballot, they slip it into a locked metal box which is later taken to the county elections administration office.
The Texas Tribune online reporting site said central voting systems in the state began 20 years ago in Lubbock. Since then, 90 counties have adopted central voting sites with 80 percent of the voters now allowed to use the system.
Senate Bill 990 has not been introduced for a vote to the Texas House of Representatives at this time and the current legislative session ends at the end of the month. However, Governor Abbott has indicated he may call a special session for the legislature to do more business.