Nov 07, 2016

Reporting Texas Joins National Effort to Cover Voter Experiences on Election Day

One of the most grueling and controversy-fraught presidential campaigns in U.S. history finally comes to an end today as voters decide whether Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton will be the next president.

Millions of Americans will cast their ballots against a backdrop of concerns across the political spectrum about potential problems at polling places. While Trump and some other Republicans are saying the election could be rigged, Democrats say they’re worried about efforts to keep people from voting and intimidation at the polls.

While most news organizations will focus on the outcome of the race, Reporting Texas and hundreds of other news organizations across the country have joined with journalism nonprofit ProPublica for Electionland, a project to provide real-time coverage of what voters experience at the polls, including problems that prevent people from exercising their right to vote.

Millions of Americans will cast their ballots for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton against a backdrop of concerns across the political spectrum about potential problems at polling places. While Trump and some other Republicans are saying the election could be rigged, Democrats say they’re worried about efforts to keep people from voting and intimidation at the polls.

Potential voting problems at the polls are especially salient in Texas this election.

In July, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals said the state’s strict voter ID law was unconstitutional because it could make it harder for minorities to vote. While Texas is appealing the ruling, the law has been suspended for this election. Registered voters without photo IDs will be able to use other forms of identification. However, there were some reports during early voting of poll workers telling people they could not vote unless they had the right photo identification.

Reporting Texas journalists will be looking for problems that impede voter access. We’ll ask which polling places have lines so long that people give up, whether voters are being turned away and why, and whether there are any cases of voter intimidation, among other issues.

Visit the Reporting Texas website throughout the day to see how voting is going in Williamson, Hays and Bastrop counties.

Reporting Texas is focusing on those three counties because they reflect the population surge and the changing demographics of the Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area. All three are a mix of suburban and rural; all voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, while Travis County chose President Obama.

Williamson and Bastrop both had record-breaking turnout during early voting, and Hays just about tied its record. For those reasons, we’re paying careful attention to whether election officials in those counties have adequately prepared for increased voter turnout and potential turmoil at the polls today.

Here are profiles of these counties and what we’ve seen from early voting and previous elections.

Williamson County

Round Rock, with more than 105,000 residents, is the largest city in Central Texas after Austin. It’s also an economic hub — home to the headquarters of Dell Inc. and major retail developments, as well as a satellite campus of Texas State University and a health sciences branch of Texas A&M.

The county is a mix of booming midsize and small cities and rural areas. Leander grew by 42 percent from 2010 to 2015, to 38,800 people, according to the city website. Georgetown’s population grew 7.8 percent from 2014 to 2015, to 64,000 residents.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of July 1, 2015, Williamson County had a population of 508,514, of whom 6.8 percent are African American, 6.4 percent are Asian and 24.1 percent are Hispanic or Latino.

Nearly 300,000 people are registered to vote in this election, up from 253,440 during the 2012 presidential election, when about 64 percent of registered voters cast ballots. Republican candidate Mitt Romney got 59 percent of the vote.

This year, about 54 percent of registered voters in Williamson cast their ballots during early voting. The busiest polling stations, according to county Elections Administrator Chris Davis, were the Randalls grocery stores in Cedar Park and Round Rock and the Brushy Creek Community Center.

County officials say they’ve encountered few problems at the polling places so far, despite worries of voter intimidation after Trump’s call for supporters to monitor the polls for signs of voter fraud. There are only rare instances of in-person voter fraud in American elections.

“Williamson County citizens have been voting in record numbers and are doing so in a very calm and orderly fashion,” Connie Watson, public affairs manager for the county, wrote in an emailed statement.

The big issue that elections officials are preparing for on Election Day is long lines at the polls, especially considering the county’s recent growth. The  county plans to have 61 voting locations open.

Davis said the county has added poll workers and will deploy all of it 700 voting machines. He believes that long waits in previous elections were exacerbated because officials did not use all of the machines. “There are going to be no machines left unused or idle during this election,” he said.

Davis told the Austin American-Statesman that he expects wait times to be at least a half-hour and to grow longer as the day progresses.

Generally, if voters are in line by 7 p.m., they will be allowed to vote, Davis told Reporting Texas. If there are emergencies, however, it’s up to the Secretary of State to allow for extensions.

Williamson County ballots are in both English and Spanish, and Davis said that there will be Spanish translators at each polling places.

Hays County

San Marcos, the county’s largest city, has ranked as one of the country’s fastest-growing small cities for several years in a row, with population growth running at 8 percent. The city has about 54,000 residents, according to its website. It’s also home Texas State University, the second-largest university in Central Texas, with 39,000 students.

As of July 1, 2015, the county had 194,739 residents, up about 24 percent from 2010, according to the Census Bureau. More than three quarters of the population is of voting age. About 55 percent of the population is white, 38 percent is Hispanic or Latino, and 4.2 percent is black.

In the 2012 presidential election, about 57 percent of the 103,491 registered voters in Hays County came out to vote. About 54 percent cast their ballots for Mitt Romney.

This year, 121,329 Hays residents are registered to vote.

The Austin American-Statesman reported on Friday that 43 percent of Hays County voters cast in-person ballots during early voting this year. That exceeds the 37 percent early voter turnout in 2012 and falls just shy of the 44 percent in 2008. This year’s number is expected to rise once mail-in ballots are included.

Early voting in Hays County was not without some problems.

On Oct. 25, KXAN-TV reported that voting machines at a polling place in Kyle stopped working for more than an hour due to a faulty cable connection. Officials changed the equipment and since then have not had further technological issues. One voter told KXAN that the poll workers “seemed ill-prepared to fix the problem.”

Hays County Elections Administrator Joyce Cowan said she heard complaints of long lines during early voting and acknowledged that there’s a need for more manpower. She said election workers are doing their best to keep wait times under 45 minutes.

Today, Hays County will have 49 polling places across eight cities open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Cowan said she expects the busiest location to be the Sunset Canyon Baptist Church in Dripping Springs, as it had heavy traffic during early voting.

Ballots will be provided in English and Spanish, and according to county officials, a Spanish-speaker will be present at every polling location.

Bastrop County

Bastrop is a mostly rural county that reflects the eastward growth trend in Central Texas. Its largest city, Bastrop, has grown 31 percent since 2000, to 8,700 people. The county also has farms and ranches. As of 2015, the county’s population was just over 80,500 people, the vast majority of whom are white.

There are 45,138 registered voters in the county this year, compared to 39,929 in 2012, when voters cast 24,481 ballots in the presidential election. Mitt Romney won 57 percent of votes.

By the end of early voting last Friday, about 47 percent of registered voters in Bastrop had cast ballots, according to the Austin American-Statesman. That’s more than the 39 percent early voter turnout in 2012 or the 43 percent turnout in 2008.

Today, Bastrop County will have 21 polling places open.

Kaye Leidy, a Bastrop County election judge and 35-year resident of the county, said the courthouse was the busiest location during early voting and would continue to be on Election Day. Wait times were not usually longer than 10 minutes during early voting, she said.

Leidy said anyone still in line when the polls close would be permitted to vote.

As an election judge, Leidy checks in voters, verifies registration, resolves discrepancies and answers voters’ questions. She also supervises official poll watchers.

The county’s website states that the main interest of poll watchers is in the conduct of a fair and honest election, though they may be affiliated with a political party. Poll watchers must meet certain requirements, including being registered to vote in the county they watch.

Leidy said she does not expect problems, including voter fraud. She also said she does not recall any voters showing up without a photo ID during early voting, though some were turned away because they were not registered to vote.

Voters who are registered but who may face verification problems at poll locations can cast a provisional ballot. Those ballots are sent to elections administrator Bridgette Escobedo, and a ballot board determines if the ballot should be counted, Leidy said.

Ballots in Bastrop County are in English and Spanish. The county’s Democratic Party chair, Chris Smith, said each polling place should have at least one staff person who can translate into Spanish. If no translator is available, someone from the county should be available by phone to translate, Smith said. He added that voters who speak a language other than English can bring their own translator.

Swathi Narayanan, Qiling Wang, Anna Casey, Dagney Pruner, John Savage, Lynda Gonzalez, Betty Arreola, Hojun Choi and Michael Thompson contributed to this report.