Polling places for urban voters of color would be cut under Texas Senate's version of voting bill being negotiated with House

Super Tuesday voting at the Metropolitan Multi-Services Center near downtown Houston on March 3, 2020.

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The number of Election Day polling places in largely Democratic parts of major Texas counties would fall dramatically under a Republican proposal to change how Texas polling sites are distributed, a Texas Tribune analysis shows. Voting options would be curtailed most in areas with higher shares of voters of color.

Relocating polling sites is part of the GOP’s priority voting bill — Senate Bill 7 — as it was passed in the Texas Senate. It would create a new formula for setting polling places in the handful of mostly Democratic counties with a population of 1 million or more. Although the provision was removed from the bill when passed in the House, it remains on the table as a conference committee of lawmakers begins hammering out a final version of the bill behind closed doors.

Under that provision, counties would be required to distribute polling places based on the share of registered voters in each state House district within the county. The formula would apply only to the state’s five largest counties — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis — and possibly Collin County once new census figures are released later this year.

A comparison of the Election Day polling locations that were used for the 2020 general election and what would happen under the Senate proposal shows a starkly different distribution of polling sites in Harris and Tarrant counties that would heavily favor voters living in Republican areas.

In Harris County — home to Houston, the state's biggest city — the formula would mean fewer polling places in 13 of the 24 districts contained in the county, all currently represented by Democrats. Every district held by a Republican would either see a gain in polling places or see no change.

In most cases, the districts that would lose polling places are represented by people of color and have a far higher share of potential voters of color than the districts that would gain voting sites. Represented by Republican Mike Schofield, House District 132, a more suburban district on the outer edge of the county, would see the biggest gain with 18 additional polling places. White citizens of voting age make up a plurality — 45.9% — in that district, according to U.S. Census estimates.

House District 141 — represented by Democrat Senfronia Thompson, the longest serving Black person in the Legislature — would lose the most polling places with 11 fewer sites. About 59% of citizens of voting age in that district are Black. Roughly 86% of citizens of voting age are either Black or Hispanic.

In Tarrant County, which includes Fort Worth, four of the 11 districts in the county would lose voting sites — two represented by Republicans and two by Democrats. But the two Democratic districts would see more significant declines.

House District 90, represented by Democrat Ramon Romero, would lose half of the polling places it had in the 2020 election with 18 fewer voting sites. In that district, 62% of citizens of voting age are Hispanic. Nearly 77% are either Hispanic or Black. House District 95, represented by Democrat Nicole Collier, would lose 13 polling places. Nearly half of the citizens of voting age in that district are Black. Roughly 68% of citizens of voting age are either Black or Hispanic.

In Bexar County, the two Republican-held districts among the county’s 10 districts would come in first and third in terms of polling place gains. Among Dallas County’s 14 districts, the district gaining the most polling places is held by a Democrat, but the county’s two GOP districts would rank second and fourth for the biggest gains.

For election administrators in the targeted counties, the forced redistribution of polling places would come shortly after most of them ditched Election Day precinct-based voting and began allowing voters to cast ballots at any polling place in a county. Many Texas counties have operated under that model, known as countywide voting, for years, but it has been taken up most recently by both blue urban metros and Republican-leaning suburbs.

“It was unexpected to find language that ties voting locations to where you live exactly in the [same section of state] code that says you can vote wherever,” said Heider Garcia, the elections administrator for Tarrant County, which made the switch to countywide voting in 2019.

While SB 7 targets the state’s biggest counties that use countywide voting, the more than 60 other Texas counties that offer it — many rural and under Republican control — would remain under the state’s more relaxed rules for polling place distribution.

In urban areas, a formula based on voter registration will inherently sway polling places toward Republican-held districts. House districts are drawn to be close to equal in total population, not registration or voter eligibility. Registration numbers are generally much lower in districts represented by Democrats because they tend to have a larger share of residents of color, particularly Hispanic residents and in some areas Asian residents — who may not be of voting age or citizens. That often results in a smaller population of eligible voters.

But in selecting voting sites, counties generally mull various factors beyond voter registration. They consider details like proximity to public transportation, past voter turnout, areas where voters may be more likely to vote by mail instead of in person and accessibility for voters with disabilities. In urban areas in particular, election officials also look to sites along thoroughfares that see high traffic to make polling places more convenient. Some of the Republican districts that would gain polling places under the proposed formula are situated toward the outskirts of a county or along the county line, while the Democratic seats losing voting sites are closer to the urban core.

“It’s much more than throwing darts at a board,” said Isabel Longoria, the Harris County election administrator. “There’s a lot of parameters that go into choosing a location. It’s not based on partisanship or what House district you’re in but really what will provide access to voters historically, socially, culturally, transportation-wise and everything in between.”

Counties like Harris must also confront historic and racist underdevelopment in communities that are home to large populations of people of color, particularly historic Black communities. In some suburban areas, Longoria posited, the county will be able to use a large high school gymnasium or community center where it can set up 20 to 30 voting machines, but in a historically Black neighborhood, they may need two smaller locations.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, the Mineola Republican who authored SB 7 and the new polling place formula, did not respond to a request for comment.

In shepherding the bill through the Senate, Hughes told his colleagues he was aiming for polling places to be “distributed equally throughout the county, not favoring one party or the other.”

“The goal of that [provision] is to make sure that if we do countywide voting, like many counties do … if it's a Republican county, we don't want them to be tempted to put all the polling places in the Republican areas, and we don't want the Democratic-run counties to do that either,” Hughes said during a March committee hearing.

When pressed by Dallas Democrat Royce West on his focus on the state’s largest counties, Hughes said complaints about lopsided polling place distribution had come from those counties. He also wrongly claimed that countywide voting was initially only offered in larger counties.

The 2020 election marked the first major election during which the state’s five largest counties all operated under the countywide model, but countywide voting is a familiar concept throughout the state. Lubbock County, south of the Panhandle, actually piloted the model in 2006. Travis County began using it as early as 2012, but the other large counties didn’t adopt it until 2019.

SB 7’s formula could also apply to the distribution of voting equipment and poll workers. Local officials have said this likely blocks them from setting up the extra-large polling places, such as voting sites in stadiums and arenas, that some counties used in November. But it could also complicate set ups at historically popular polling places where counties try to tailor a larger setup, including more voting machines and check-in stations, to meet expected demand.

It remains unclear if the formula will end up in the final version of SB 7. In advancing the measure, the House and Senate essentially passed two different bills that must be consolidated.

The Senate’s version is expansive and would make changes to almost the entire election process, restricting early voting hours, local options for casting ballots, mail-in voting and the distribution of polling places. The House swapped out the Senate’s language in committee and replaced it with its own priority election bill that was in some ways tighter in scope and was further slimmed down during the chamber’s floor debate.

The bill is now in a conference committee made up by members from both chambers who are expected to work out the differences in each chamber’s version of the bill — both of which remain opposed by civil rights groups with long histories of fighting back voting laws that could harm voters of color.

It’s possible the Republican-majority committee could come back with a massive bill that includes both iterations of the legislation, including the polling place formula.

In SB 7, local organizers who work to encourage election participation see the potential for urban counties to lose the flexibility that comes with countywide voting, particularly when it’s coupled with other proposed restrictions to limit voting options and early voting hours, said Corisha Rogers, a Houston regional field coordinator for the Texas Freedom Network.

“This bill is not helping,” Rogers said. “It’s a rollback on the progress that was made in the previous election.”

Disclosure: Texas Freedom Network 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.