If you're from Austin, voting in a grocery store probably feels like a normal thing. But to those who are newer to town, it's unusual.
Mariko Troyer grew up in Westchester, N.Y. She went to college in Seattle and voted at conventional polling places, like schools and libraries. When she moved to Austin, she was surprised that the polling location closest to her work was a Randalls grocery store.
“Just as I was thinking about it, it’s really strange — at least as far as I’m concerned — to vote in a grocery store,” Troyer said. “I was talking to a couple of my friends about it, too, who live out of state. They also thought, 'Grocery store? Why would you vote there?’”
That prompted her to ask our ATXplained series: What’s the history behind why so many polling locations in Austin are in a grocery store?
Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir says voting in grocery stores started sometime in the 1990s.
“Randalls, and Wheatsville and Fiesta, and a couple of other stores stepped up for us, especially after 2000, and said, ‘We will help you,’” DeBeauvoir said. “Because we just couldn’t find enough locations to reach our growing population without their real estate.”
She approached the stores with the idea of making voting more of an everyday activity.
“Elections needed to go where the voters were and not expect voters to go where the ballots were,” she said. “So, I stopped offering only locations that were government buildings and started offering locations where voters already were and that included all kinds of retail opportunities.”
Through the years, DeBeauvoir opened up voting centers in malls and shopping centers, like the current one in Southpark Meadows. International grocery store chain MT Supermarket, on North Lamar Boulevard, has also come on board.
Travis County uses as many grocery stores as it can, usually to great success — maybe too great, especially as lines grow during the last hours of early voting and on election days.
“Take it easy on them," DeBeauvoir said. "It’s hard on them when the lines really pile up like that. We don’t have to treat them like that. There are other locations where you can vote more quickly.”
She is also thankful for the sacrifice of a store's valuable floor space that is effectively loaned to voters for a few weeks.
So far, it seems there’s a lot of giving from the store — so, what might they get out of it?
Lilia Rodriguez, a spokesperson for Fiesta Mart, says grocery store voting is a win-win for the store and customers.
“You can go in, vote, do your thing and then shop, or shop and then stand in line, depending on how busy it is, really the thing is to gauge it,” Rodriguez said.
Stores may also pick up customers who would not typically be in the habit of stopping in.
“Maybe they weren’t aware that the Randalls was there, so, yeah, there is a great opportunity to drive some traffic to the store,” said Christy Lara, director of public relations for Albertson’s Southern Division, Randalls' parent company. “So, we’re happy to be a part of that.”
She says a grocery store — like voting — is central to a community. “Allowing people a place to come and vote that’s easily accessible is one of the benefits that we see as part of this,” Lara said.
But you might notice the biggest player in the Austin grocery market is missing.
H-E-B used to have in-store voting, but a 2002 lawsuit was the tipping point for the store’s involvement.
“A private sector business claimed that they were the same thing as voting and insisted that H-E-B allow them to set up a table inside the store, right next to voting, for their private sector business,” DeBeauvoir said.
That business was a group called Independent Texans, which was suing to be allowed to petition inside H-E-B stores and parking lots. The group was led by activist Linda Curtis.
Curtis once ran for City Council and more recently led a group called IndyAustin, which organized a number of failed petition-led city ballot initiatives.
At the time, Curtis argued that since H-E-B was a polling location, it was also a community center — and therefore had to allow active petitioning. And she wasn't necessarily wrong. The lawsuit was filed on the group’s behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union.
During elections, campaign representatives can advocate, wave signs, take part in electioneering — most things short of harassment — as long as they're at least 100 feet from a polling place. For most grocery store locations, that means activities would be allowed on their property. A creative interpretation of the law could have it in the frozen food or produce section, without restrictions.
H-E-B's bottom line was it didn't want solicitation of any kind in or around its stores.
“They said, ‘We’re not going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars [for something] that isn’t our primary function and so we’re just going to step out of the voting business,” DeBeauvoir said.
Curtis would not agree to talk on tape, but she did say her goal was not to shut down H-E-B as a polling location.
Back when retail voting was relatively new, she says, H-E-B may not have considered all that they would be getting into. The lawsuit was eventually dropped, but it may have been part of the decision to scale back H-E-B’s involvement on election days.
In a statement to KUT, H-E-B's director of public affairs, Leslie Sweet, said, “We worked hard in collaboration with the County Clerk’s office to keep early voting at our locations, but with quite possibly the busiest parking lots in town it became logistically untenable.”
H-E-B started to pull back its participation and finally ended it in 2014.
Legal hurdles aside, with all the convenience that grocery store voting brings, it may be surprising it's not caught on elsewhere.
“Travis County is certainly a leader in this area. I learned of it from a couple of other states that were doing it,” DeBeauvoir said. “There are some other places in Texas. Other counties have learned this approach and have found it also successful."
The only other major Texas city where grocery store voting is done is Houston, where Fiesta Mart is based.
Both of its Austin locations have been polling places since 2000, but you can vote at only one of Fiesta's 20-plus Houston locations.
Randalls was originally founded in Houston, where you can only vote at two locations. In Travis County, there are only two Randalls where you can't vote.
Got a tip? Email Jimmy Maas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @maasdinero.
If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.