March 11, 2020 1250 PM
ALPINE — Terry Pelle, a 65-year-old Alpine resident, has voted in every election she could — something she considers a “privilege and gloriful right.” But bad experiences at the Brewster County polls this year have her reevaluating that philosophy.
Pelle, who’s disabled, says she wasn’t able to mail in her ballot as she’s done in previous elections after her application was returned to her. And when she went to vote with another disabled person, that person didn’t get the help she needed and left without voting, Pelle said.
“I don’t even know if I’m going to participate in voting anymore,” Pelle said in a phone interview. “I am so, so upset about what has happened.”
Pelle’s situation may be unique, but issues with Texas elections aren’t. Across the state, countless stories have emerged of issues leading up to and during Texas’ “Super Tuesday” primary elections, which fell on March 3.
Presidio County was forced to open new polling locations after a civil rights group complained the county was possibly violating state elections code by consolidating precincts, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported. Meanwhile, dozens of voter registrations in Presidio County were suspended after registration cards bounced.
On the other side of the state, in Harris County in Houston, some voters found themselves waiting in line for hours after Texas closed around 800 polling locations — a 44 percent decrease from 2012. And in other places, like Hidalgo and Collin counties, each polling location served more than 10,000 voters, according to data from the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil rights group.
Problems like this are not new to the state. In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required federal oversight of elections in several states, including Texas. And last year, the Texas Civil Rights Project, another statewide civil rights group, released its postmortem of the 2018 midterm elections.
The report’s conclusion: Texas voting rights, which were already “in peril,” suffered that year from problems ranging from malfunctioning machines and long lines to what the group says is “noncompliance with the National Voter Registration Act,” a 1993 law that’s supposed to make it easier for Americans to register. The group cited “election administration failures” and “voter suppression tactics” as two major causes.
Altogether, the Texas Civil Rights Project found over 4,500 cases of “incidents or questions” at Texas polls that year. The group did not respond by press time to inquiries about the 2020 primaries.
Clark Childers, a Marfa resident, last year started as the Democratic Party county chair for Presidio County — a position that saw him help to run this year’s March 3 statewide primary. It was his first time doing so.
Overall, Childers said voting in Presidio County went “relatively smoothly.” There were some issues, including the fact that one state-level Democratic candidate, Efrain Valdez, was mistakenly left off some ballots. But there weren’t reports of long lines in Presidio County, and there was a paper trail of local votes, he said. He counts both of those as successes.
Still, as a first-time election worker, Childers was struck by the degree to which county and city officials — rather than state and national ones — were left to handle the work of organizing elections and tallying votes in Texas.
“There’s a lot of burden on the public for these primaries that I wasn’t aware of,” he said. “It’s a very complicated and exhaustive process, and I didn’t realize it fell on the shoulders of citizens. It’s a citizen-run event.”
And had Childers and others not stepped up, voting in Presidio County might not have gone as well. Childers personally spent his own money on voting precinct supplies, from privacy screens and clipboards to pens and stamps. The local Democratic Party also fundraised around $6,000 from local donors to help buy Presidio city another vote-counting machine.
Asked what could make the process run better, Childers said more supplies like tables and privacy screens could help prevent a potential “clog in the line.” And he’d like to see more state-level training of voting workers.
As it stands, Presidio County poll workers and officials in the Super Tuesday primary only got around two hours of training — all of it from other local officials. “We’re relying on our city workers to train us to do this, and it’s complicated,” Childers said.
Without more training and funding for elections, more Texas voters in November could have experiences like Pelle, the disenchanted Alpine resident.
Pelle said her voting problems started earlier this year. She sent in her application for a mail-in ballot, as she’s done in previous elections. This year, it was returned to sender.
She called Lora Nussbaum, the elections administrator for Brewster County, to figure out the issue. But Pelle says Nussbaum blamed the issue on Democrats.
“That answer shocked the beans out of me,” Pelle said. “It was shocking to me to get a political answer to an election’s issue.” Nussbaum did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
A few days later, Pelle went to the polls with Debra Valles, her home health provider. Pelle was finally able to vote. Valles wasn’t.
Valles, who suffers from a learning disability, needed help with her ballot. But the poll workers didn’t help and instead “just kind of yelled at us,” Valles said. Valles took a sample ballot and left.
The Texas Secretary of State’s office confirmed Tuesday that Valles was entitled to get help with her ballot. Disabled voters are entitled to get help with their ballots, a spokesman said, and it isn’t up to local precincts and poll workers to decide if they need it.
And for what it’s worth, Valles, with the help of her sample ballot, says she was eventually able to vote after returning a second time. But the experience also left her feeling frustrated with the voting process.
“It would have been nice if they just explained [the ballot] to me,” Valles said of the allegedly unhelpful pollworkers. “I didn’t want them to tell me who to choose.”