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Countywide voting could be eliminated in Travis County for the upcoming March primaries

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Countywide voting could no longer be available to Travis County residents. It's a tool the county has used for nearly two decades.

For over a decade, Austin voters have been able to cast a ballot anywhere in Travis County.

But a push by the Travis County Republican Party to count the ballots by hand could eliminate the countywide voting centers in the March 5 primary elections, a spokesperson with Texas Secretary of State Jane Nelson confirmed to KUT on Friday afternoon.

This has created a stalemate between the Republicans and the Travis County Democratic Party. In the past, both parties have come to an agreement on how to administer the elections.

Katie Naranjo, chair for the Travis County Democratic Party, said in a press conference Wednesday that Republicans are to blame for the "significant delay and confusion and chaos ... in the breakdown of negotiations."

As of Friday, the parties had not signed a joint agreement that would allow them to share voting machines and polling places, and allow the county clerk to run the election.

Naranjo said that in 2022 the joint primary contract was signed by late November. She said a joint contract has been the tradition for the last 30 years in Travis County, way before the implementation of countywide voting sites.

The Travis County Republican Party declined to comment for this story.

However, in a statement to the Austin American-Statesman on Wednesday, Matt Mackowiak, the chairman of the county GOP, said his party supports countywide voting.

That's despite Republicans in the Texas Senate passing a measure that would have eliminated voting centers. The bill ultimately stalled in the House.

So what is happening?

Travis County Republican Party officials have said they are trying to improve voter turnout and rebuild trust in the system.

Their comments echo those of other Republican groups across Texas who have made the false claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Former President Donald Trump carried Texas in that election by nearly 6 points. But nationwide, President Joe Biden beat Trump by over 7 million votes.

The Travis County Republican Party says the way to increase trust in the election process is by hand counting GOP mail-in ballots and early voting tallies. The party also wants to add a requirement for Republican voters that would include having to sign a paper roster, according to party officials.

According to a report from the Travis County Republican Party's Election Services Contract Committee shared with KUT, that would take 2,000 volunteers and it would cost about $30,000 — assuming half of the ballot counters are unpaid volunteers — to make it happen.

David Becker, executive director and founder for nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research, said there is no evidence that hand counting ballots has an impact on turnout.

“But there is substantial evidence that hand counting of ballots is much more costly and less accurate than the machine-counting processes when audited,” Becker said, adding it also makes it more time consuming.

Democratic leaders say counting ballots by hand would also eliminate the possibility of using countywide voting centers. That would mean voters would be required vote in their specific precinct sites.

Jenna Royal, voter protection director for the Texas Democratic Party, said this week losing countywide voting not only impacts voters of both parties who have grown accustomed to this option, but it also has a disproportionate impact on people of color who work shifts or far away from their precincts.

It also has a negative effect on people with disabilities.

“Because when we have to expand the number of polling places by this much, we might have to use places that don't have curbside available,” Royal said. “And we might not have the volunteers, equipment or finances to open the doors and these people have no place to vote because countywide voting was taken away.”

Time is of the essence

As the primary date draws closer, there is still a lot to be done ahead of the election, including training election workers and testing voting machines.

And election officials worry that as the clock runs out, there won’t be enough time to educate voters of both parties if there are changes.

"Voters are already trying to figure out, 'Am I voting in the same place, who is different on my ballot, how do I figure out what I'm supposed to do?'" Becker said. "If this proposal went forward, [voters] might have to navigate a new registration system and wait longer for ballots to be counted in a way that has never been done before. ... And that voter confusion can lead to significant problems."

Travis County Clerk Dyana Limon-Mercado told KUT she has met with Travis County Republican Party leadership multiple times and made concessions to help ease their concerns, like accepting the additional signature requirement when checking in.

“But so far, that has not been enough for them,” she said. “They continue to ask for additional changes to the process Travis County voters have come to know and rely on, which has the potential to create chaos for both Republican and Democratic voters and create doubt in our election system."

She said she remains hopeful the county will be able to hold joint primaries, "but we must act quickly as time is running out to build the complex infrastructure required to host a successful election."

Luz Moreno-Lozano is the Austin City Hall reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at lmorenolozano@kut.org. Follow her on X @LuzMorenoLozano.
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