Editor’s Note: Chris Rosenberg is the newly elected chairwoman of the Bell County Democratic Party. After learning what happened there on Tuesday, I invited her to write an guest post for BOR. The story of what happened in Bell County points to the need to modernize voting equipment in counties across the state. It also reminds us of the continuing effects of the Texas Republicans’ illegal redistricting plan on our state’s small-d democratic process. Many thanks to Chris for this excellent post. Lize Burr, BOR Publisher/Editor
Deeply red Bell County is located in the central part of the state, an hour’s drive north of Austin. It is a rapidly-growing county that includes the Killeen-Temple metroplex and is home to Fort Hood, the world’s largest military installation. The military presence in our community has a profound impact on its demographics: many people, especially on the western side of the county, are not native Texans; they are often transplants who chose Bell County as their home. Although I am a sixth-generation Texan, I am one of many Bell County transplants, a military brat whose family settled in the area in the 1980s.
I was on the primary ballot Tuesday, running unopposed as the Bell County Democratic Chair. Although my term wouldn’t ordinarily begin until June, circumstances necessitated my taking the office a few weeks ago. As I left my house early Tuesday morning, I was as green as they come, fervently focused on assisting election workers run an uneventful primary. However, as I circulated among polling locations during the morning, I began to see a trend: by noon, judges were running low on ballots and additional ballots were slow to arrive and few in number. I had hoped to visit most of the 47 polling locations that day, but I diverted to the elections office to talk to administrators face-to-face about my growing concerns. Election administrators were well aware of and were furiously printing more. I was able to courier some of those ballots to a few of precincts, but I couldn’t keep up with demand. Precinct 413 was the last location I was able to reach in person. It was 5:00; 40 voters were lined outside the building. I ran to the office with the single ballot I had obtained from the previous precinct and handed it to the election judge who was able to make copies in the principal’s office. Precinct 413 was fortunate: they had on-site access to a copier. In other polling locations, clerks were sent off-site to print ballots.
As the crisis deepened, voters, election judges and press were in hot pursuit of a culprit to blame for the chaotic situation. Although Republicans also had a ballot shortage in Bell County, more of the precinct deficits were Democratic ballots. I will always be haunted by the specter of voters who waited and waited for ballots that were slow in coming–and the very real possibility that voters left without casting a ballot at all.
The Democratic voters of Bell County deserve to know what went wrong in the primary election of 2016. As so many of Texas’ looming crises, this one appears to be budgetary in nature with an element of redistricting thrown in for good measure. Like many counties in the state, the Republican and Democratic Parties contract with the county to run a joint primary. The Texas Secretary of State recommends a formula based on the last similar cycle that election administrators use for ordering ballots. The number of ballots planned for the primary of 2016 was based on the number of ballots cast in the primary of 2012, the last presidential cycle. SOS suggests adding 25% to the last cycle’s numbers: our election administrator added 50%. The problem with the math was due to the primary debacle of 2012 that affected all Texas voters. Because of the redistricting lawsuit pending in the courts, the primary election that year was delayed three times, ultimately held May 29th, with extraordinarily low turnout. That year in Bell County, less than 2500 Democrats cast a ballot for President. By contrast, in the previous presidential election cycle of 2008, in which voter turnout was extraordinarily high, just under 25,000 Democrats voted for President. While official numbers aren’t yet available, approximately 10,000 Bell County Democrats voted on Tuesday: four times the number of the 2012 primary cycle but less than half of the 2008 cycle.
Predicting how many voters will turn out on Election Day will only grow more complex in the future, especially in a growing, diverse county such as Bell. Voters shouldn’t have to rely on the Secretary of State’s guesstimates of how many voters will turn out each cycle so their county election officials can order up some paper ballots on a shoestring. As it turns out, electronic voting with a paper trail is available in this new century. It serves voters well, simplifying the process and making it exponentially easier for voters to vote. Bell County Commissioners Court, the entity that would fund this new voting equipment, has been presented with such proposals in the past. I am urging Bell County voters who feel disenfranchised to contact their respective commissioners with their concerns, impressing upon them the need for new election equipment that simplifies the voting process and ensures their votes will be counted. Commissioners have previously rejected spending money on the project, maintaining that if it isn’t broken, it doesn’t need fixing. Clearly, that argument will not hold up after this year’s primary