Texas politics

BELTON — Bell County could know by the end of the month if it can proceed with its plans for countywide vote centers for the March 3 primary.

The Commissioners Court on Monday finalized its application to the Texas Secretary of State for its countywide polling place program. The decision was unanimous. The deadline to apply was Monday.

If approved, Bell County would consolidate its 48 Election Day voting locations to 41 for the upcoming primaries. This move would allow Bell County residents to cast their ballots at any polling location on Election Day — mirroring the county’s early voting period.

“Each year the Secretary of State’s office selects or allows up to six counties with populations over 100,000 to enter into the program,” Bell County Judge David Blackburn said. “Every county that touches Bell County is doing countywide voting centers.”

The Secretary of State’s office told Blackburn it will notify him if the county’s application is approved or disapproved by the end of the month.

Blackburn pointed to the county’s growing population as a reason for the consolidation. Nine years ago, in 2010, the U.S. Census pegged the county’s population at 310,235. Blackburn estimates that number has grown by more than 70,000 people to around 380,000.

The blossoming population will likely increase the number of precincts in Bell County.

“My best guess is that we’re probably going to add around 14, 15 precincts in this next Census, going from 48 to probably to 62, 63; somewhere like that,” Blackburn said. “There is a strong likelihood that additional precincts will be needed.”

Each voting precinct should have around 5,000 registered voters. That is not the case, Blackburn said. Thirteen precincts are out of balance, he said.

“That’s an issue,” the county judge said.

Although the Commissioners Court purchased $886,000 in new election equipment in mid-August, Elections Administrator Melinda Luedecke told the commissioners additional hardware may be needed for the proposed switch.

She said the commissioners need to consider buying additional electronic voter registration lists so each polling location can have two computers to check in voters. She also said her department will need additional ballot printers for the voting centers.

Bill Rosenberg, the Senate District 24 representative for the Texas Democratic Party, and Jim Reynolds, an election judge who lives in Killeen, said countywide voting centers will benefit voters.

“This is for the voters,” Reynolds told the commissioners. “I completely believe it will make a difference in our turnout.”

Nearly 44 percent of Bell County voters turned out in the November 2018 election; 86,516 ballots were cast, according to the Bell County Elections Department. There were 196,688 registered voters for that election.

Blackburn asked Luedecke if she thought countywide polling places would bolster turnout and make casting a ballot more convenient.

“Yes, very much so,” she said. “That’s been my whole goal throughout the process: To help the voters of Bell County.”

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