“No one understands how difficult elections are to run": Officials in small-town Texas endure a stressful election

A voter leaves the early voting site at the Archer Courthouse Annex in Archer City. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

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Without Christie Mooney, there is no election for Archer County’s 6,000 registered voters this year. No one else in the rural enclave near Wichita Falls in north Texas is responsible for registering voters, opening mail-in ballots, setting up polling stations, training poll workers, running the website, studying election code or pretty much anything else that comes along.

In a large city like Houston to the distant southeast, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has teams to perform each of those tasks, overseeing a staff of hundreds running a complex operation to serve the county's 2.4 million registered voters. As a flurry of lawsuits and court decisions have continually shifted the landscape of this year's highly charged election, election officials like Hollins in urban counties have gangs of lawyers, and daily find themselves in the thick of fierce partisan battles over voting rules and access.

But in much of Texas, elections come down to the people like Mooney, a 55-year-old former car dealership office manager turned election junkie. Rural counties like hers often have no more than a few people, sometimes in part-time jobs, responsible for everything.

Four days before Election Day, with voting underway at the county's three early polling places, her office in the Archer County courthouse reflected that. Plastic tables stacked with half-a-tree’s worth of papers lined the walls, crowding the methodically organized office. A giant whiteboard loomed over the room bearing endless reminders and to-dos written in blue marker: Program ballot — check. Order election kits — check. She still needed to install backup batteries in voting machines in case of a power outage and build voting kits.

Her desk showed a flare of fall — blue, orange and white pumpkins — and 2020 election mayhem, with dozens of manilla envelopes set in 11 piles.

“No one understands how difficult elections are to run,” Mooney said “The election administrators in every state in the Union are the ones that are under the pressure, waking up at three o'clock in the morning.”

Before an impending ice storm earlier this week, Mooney made sure her poll workers had rides and scheduled a de-icer for the parking lots and paths into the building to ensure voters’ safety. Over the course of a few hasty phone calls, she barely had time to explain all this, let alone breathe.

Rule changes have come often this election season, covering everything from when absentee ballots can be counted to wearing masks while voting, leaving election administrators scrambling to keep up.

“It’s been really hectic,” said Virginia Pallarez, who's running the election in Presidio County, in far West Texas, closer to New Mexico than Austin. An extra week of early voting, which Gov. Greg Abbott announced in late July, left Pallarez searching for more poll workers in a county with fewer than 5,000 registered voters. She spent precious time placing ads and calling anyone who she thought would help out.

When counties were limited to one location to drop off mail-in ballots, she stretched herself even thinner trying to figure out where that would be.

Voters at the Alvord City Hall, an early voting site in Alvord on Oct. 28, 2020.
Voters at the Alvord City Hall, an early voting site in Wise County. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

Hollins has nothing but empathy for his rural colleagues. In Houston, he has the staff to handle changes as they come in, but he knows that’s not the case for most Texas counties, which he says is “frustrating.”

“I know that there are 253 other election administrators who face similar challenges and may not have as large of a team who could step up and do this work at these critical junctures,” Hollins said. “I feel for the election administrators across Texas.”

While Pallarez struggled to find enough poll workers, Hollins has 12,000 this year — drawn from a pool of 40,000 applicants — roughly double the number the county had in 2016. This allowed him to staff polls for 24 hours one day this week, and gives him a cache of 28,000 contacts should he need more. He’s doing everything he can to allow voters to cast ballots whenever they can.

“This is the most important election of our lifetime, period,” Hollins said.

But after months of adrenaline and caffeine, Hollins, like the fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters running the election across Texas, is tired. This year has been dizzying. Rushed special and local elections, the end of straight-ticket voting, one mail-in ballot drop-off location per county, curbside voting, a raging pandemic. The list is endless.

“We're all losing sleep right now,” Hollins said on his way to visit a polling station Tuesday. “And we'll all be anxious to catch up on that once this election is over. But we know how important this is. And we're deeply committed to this mission.”

That exhaustion is even more pronounced in rural counties.

Kevin Stroud, like Mooney, is running Aransas County’s election mostly by himself — he has one other full-time staffer and one part-timer in the rural county near Corpus Christi on Texas’ Gulf Coast. Stroud used to work at the city library, and came into the election administrator's job in September. He had to hit the ground sprinting to keep up with the changes.

“We’re just average ordinary people,” Stroud said. “We come to work and do our best job to allow them to get out there and exercise their right to vote.”

From answering questions from his 18,000 registered voters about where they can go vote and when, to documenting voting procedures and sending data to the office of Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughes to make sure he is adhering to the latest rules, Stroud has put in an extra 20 hours in recent weeks. He wouldn’t change a thing.

“Once you get bit with the election bug, you can’t get away from it,” Stroud said.

With rumbles from both major political parties indicating that they're prepared to challenge unwelcome election results, on top of trying to keep voters safe from the coronavirus, many of Stroud’s peers are even more stressed than usual about getting things right.

Christie Kellar and her daughter Olivia enter the Lakeside Municipal Building in Lakeside City to vote on Oct. 28, 2020.
Christie Kellar and her daughter Olivia entered the Lakeside Municipal Building in Lakeside City to vote on Oct. 28, 2020. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

“This is a different election. Everybody’s under a lot of pressure right now,” Pallarez said. “I’ve never felt just this type of pressure to conduct the election without any problems. I don’t want anybody to come in and question whether we did this wrong or that went wrong.”

Mooney agrees. She is often on the phone with neighboring election administrators talking through logistics and the latest procedural changes that are essential to running a successful election.

“The stakes are too high to make a mistake,” Mooney said. “I double check, triple check everything. I don’t want there to be any questions about the integrity of my elections.”

In many rural counties, like in urban Harris county, voter engagement is way up, making the jobs of election administrators even busier. In Archer, Mooney hears from voters daily asking for early returns and has registered 200 new voters this year. In Aransas, Stroud opened up a second early voting site, which means he had to find more staffing, to absorb the record number of voters. With about double the number of Aransas residents voting by-mail this election — through Thursday, 1,400 voters did so — he’s busy processing those ballots and fielding calls from voters wondering if their votes have been received.

According to each of the election officials, their families and friends finally understand how important and stressful their job is. They are regularly thanked for what they are doing.

For Mooney, Tuesday night will be less of an end to a marathon — though she will feel relieved when it does come — than another lap in an unrelenting race.

“It’s a feeling of accomplishment,” she said. “But it only lasts one night before you have to start getting ready for the next one.”

Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.