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Study finds insufficient polling sites in the Valley

1 month 2 weeks 4 days ago Thursday, May 14 2020 May 14, 2020 May 14, 2020 7:41 PM May 14, 2020 in News - Local

A study by a civil rights advocate group found Valley counties are not providing as many polling sites as required by state law.

The Texas Civil Rights Project published its findings Wednesday. Dozens of counties were found to be out of compliance with state standards including Hidalgo, Cameron and Starr counties.

"It is disappointing that so many counties across our state are failing to comply with the Texas Election Code. At the end of the day, voters suffer the consequences, in the form of longer lines or even flat out disenfranchisement,” Zachary Dolling, staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project said in a letter sent to the Texas Secretary of State's Office.

The study began last year when Dolling was investigating precinct combinations. "In the in the process of doing that I came across a bunch of rules in the Texas Election Code that set out how many polling places each county is supposed to provide," he said.

The rules are different for the counties depending on whether they are non-countywide or countywide.

Their research was based in the 2018 election cycle. They found Hidalgo County provided 74 polling sites and had two of their election precincts exceed the allowed 5,000 registered voters. "It therefore needed to provide at least 80 polling places, and then, however, more polling places would be required after redrawing those two large precincts," Dolling said.

A letter was sent to Hidalgo County in January, but the organization did not receive a response. CHANNEL 5 NEWS is still waiting for a response for comment.

Similar shortcomings were found in Cameron County. "They needed to provide 80 polling places which is four more than they did provide. And, they also need to redraw their two large precincts which would probably add an additional polling place," Dolling said.

Cameron County Elections Administrator Remi Garza sent a statement to CHANNEL 5 NEWS.

"We took action to create an additional voting precinct and reassigned voters to an existing precinct to bring us into accord with the Texas Election Code. We also reviewed the issues raised regarding the consolidation of polling locations for certain precincts and found that we were in compliance based on the needs of the community."

In Starr County, the commissioners court was already aware of the need for some changes before the Texas Civil Rights Project sent them a letter in February.

"It had two election precincts with more than 5,000 registered voters. It provided ten polling places in November 2018, but it needed to have redrawn those overly large precincts," Dolling said.

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said they're aware of the long lines that form in Roma, Precinct 6. "I think it's needed and we're going to try and see if we can get that done," he said.

Commissioners are considering dividing the precinct, but that would come at a cost to the cash-strapped county. "You're looking at another voting precinct running us maybe between $5,000 to $10,000 per election, just personnel," Vera said. That estimate does not include the expenses made for voting machines and programming.

Jared Hockema, the Democratic Party Chair in Cameron County, was critical of the report. "TCRP is a great organization, but it paints with too broad a brush in this instance. Cameron County has expanded its election precincts, and we have more election precincts per capita than most counties in Texas," a statement read.

It also pointed out, "the TCRP report does not reflect that our precincts have fewer voters per precinct, or that in many cases, there is not a suitable voting location within the election precinct."

The solution for each county will be different depending on whether they decide to redraw precincts or to approve more money to hire more poll workers and open additional polling sites.

The Texas Civil Rights Project is asking the Secretary of State's Office to increase their monitoring of the counties highlighted in the report and issue a statewide election compliance advisory.

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