election equipment

Harrison County is seeking permission from the Secretary of State’s Office to implement a countywide voting system, also known as open polling, in time for the upcoming March Primaries. The county’s new electronic equipment is one of the necessary requirements.

The Harrison County Commissioners Court decided to move forward in its quest to implement a countywide voting program by recently approving a resolution supporting the proposal.

“Hopefully if I have all the information that they need and we can prove to the state, that hey, we’ve done everything (accordingly), then they would grant us permission to conduct the primary (elections) with countywide voting,” Elections Administrator Donald Robinette told the commissioners court during a recent public hearing on the matter.

In order to implement a countywide voting system, the county first has to apply to the Secretary of State’s Office for approval.

“Some people call it open polling. It is where polls are open and available for any registered voter in Harrison County to access and vote at that poll during Election Day,” Judge Sims said, explaining the process.

Currently, voters are restricted to their precinct-specific locations on Election Day. Under a countywide polling program, voters can vote at any polling location regardless of their designated precinct. The county is aiming to get approval for the program in time for the upcoming March Primaries.

“In order to go to the countywide program, the state only allows four small counties per election to apply for countywide voting and would allow six of the larger counties to apply,” said Robinette. “It’s per election. So we decided to jump on the bandwagon and do it with the primaries.”

The request is currently still under review, Robinette said Monday.

Offering his support of the proposal, Pct. 2 Commissioner Zephaniah Timmins noted that he’s received several calls from constituents who are also in favor of the proposed open polling option.

“I received several phone calls and people saying thank you to the court, commissioners, because they feel like it’s something that Harrison County needs and is actually needed all over the state of Texas,” said Timmins. “So my constituents are saying thank you for doing this.”

Sims agreed that the move is “a big step up” for the county. He noted the movement comes at the perfect time, following the redistricting of voting boxes in election precincts.

“If we didn’t have it and we redistricted some people out of their home district, they’d be showing up at the wrong place,” Sims commented. “That’s why we really think this open polling would be a big blessing to our voters in the county.”

What’s Needed

Robinette noted that each county selected to participate in the countywide program must have an electronic marking device, which Harrison County does thanks to a $730,000 investment the county approved in December 2020 for new electronic election equipment.

“The equipment that we have now is super because it eliminates a lot of spoiled ballots. It does give them a summary. It does ask them twice on what they selected, and so it’s an ideal kind of situation,” said Robinette.

In addition to an electronic marking device and a computerized voter registration list, Robinette said he also must present the Secretary of State letters of support along with other pertinent information.

“They’ll need a letter from myself, a letter from the judge, and we’ll need to get information about our voting system, our poll pad system, information on the public hearing, the methodology of how we’re going to select polling places, how we’re going to appoint judges and alternate judges and any issues that are brought up, that we have successfully resolved those issues, and that we’re in compliance with all the things in the election code,” the elections administrator said.

Going Forward

Robinette noted that, going forward, a countywide polling system allows a county to reduce the number of polling places down to 65 percent in the first effort. If successful, then the county can reduce the number of polling places down to 50 percent the second time around, allowing more machines to be used at a polling place while also saving money on the amount of poll workers.

At this time, however, Robinette said it’s the consensus of members of the advisory committee to keep all 26 polling places open for the primaries. The advisory committee consists of both local political party chairs and representatives from city and county elections the county holds.

“That way, nobody gets left out, but you get more opportunities to go vote and it would eliminate a lot of errors,” he said of keeping all 26 polling locations open the first time around.

Robinette said if the county doesn’t get the green light to implement countywide voting for the March primaries, then he’ll reapply for the May 6 school election.

“If we can’t make it for the primary then hopefully we can reapply for the May 6 school election, because it will be a county election that will have Constitutional Amendments on it as well,” he said.

Speaking for himself, Marshall City Commissioner Leo Morris, who attended the public hearing, said he’s in favor of open polling but is concerned about the impact the potential reduction of polling places would have on voters whose normal precinct location is eliminated.

Addressing the concern, Judge Sims noted that the county has already successfully consolidated precincts in the past due to low voter turnout.

“That makes a very valid point, and we already do that,” said Sims. “In fact, the last election we had we reduced the number of polling places, just because we knew it was going to be low turnout; and so we had a significantly reduced number of polling places,” he said. “As far as I know, people were OK. We got the word out. They knew that we were consolidating precincts because of low voter turnout.”

“It’s not something that we’d be doing any different than what we’ve already done in the past, and especially without notifying people,” he added. “It’s a good point. I think we’re already doing it successfully, and so I’m not overly concerned that we’d be alienating anybody.”

Robinette further added that the county already implements an open polling model during early voting, allowing voters to vote at any polling location.

“If we go to open polling on Election Day, it would practically eliminate provisional ballots because a lot of times people would show up at the wrong polling place five minutes to seven (o’clock) and they don’t have time to get to the correct one,” he explained. “So, it would actually enable more people to vote and instead of keeping people from voting.”

If the first implementation is deemed successful, then the county would be permitted to continue with using countywide voting.

“They would permit four counties per election to apply for, and once you apply for and hold a successful one, then you can go forward using that from now on,” said Robinette. “But you gotta get approved the first time.”

In other election matters, the commissioners court will consider, Tuesday, the approval of 28 Duo Go portal carrier with printer, at a cost of $1,500 per printer, for a total of $42,650 to further assist with curbside voting and help the county’s quest in countywide voting.

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