Oct 14, 2020

Updates: Central Texas Voters Cast Ballots During Pandemic

Reporting Texas

Smith County registered voters wait in line to cast their ballots at R.B. Hubbard Center on Oct. 15, 2020, in Tyler, Texas. Reporting Texas photographer Chloe Bertrand, who is working remotely in East Texas, captured this line outside of “The Hub,” one of seven polling locations in the county. Chloe Bertrand/Reporting Texas

Central Texas residents have begun casting ballots in what is shaping up to be an unprecedented presidential election. In addition to the challenges of voting during a pandemic, Texans are navigating a flurry of judicial rulings that address voting, including mail-in ballot restrictions, straight-ticket voting and the number of ballot drop-off locations counties are allowed.

Some election observers are leery of voter confusion and frustration at the polls. 

“I’m sure there will be last-minute confusion because of the legal battle going on right now,” said Ivy Major-McDowall, a field coordinator with the left-leaning voting rights group Texas Rising. “There’s just a confusing mixture, especially with social distancing and COVID-19 protocols.”

Travis County Republican Party spokesman Andy Hogue said Republicans worry about lax ballot security. “Voters need to know that their vote is secure, and it still matters,” Hogue said.

Even with the challenging nature of the election and concerns from both the political left and right, Travis County is well positioned to hold a smooth and fair election, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir told Reporting Texas.

DeBeauvoir expects a fourfold increase in votes by mail compared to the 2016 presidential election, and she urged voters  not to wait until Election Day to vote. “We want voters to do the one thing that only they can do: go out and vote,” she added. 

From now until election day, Nov. 3, Reporting Texas correspondents will regularly file reports on how voting is going in Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell counties. We will be checking on mail-in ballot drop off, early voting and actual election-day balloting.  Check back for updates.

Update Oct. 21, 4:00 p.m. – Steady voting in Caldwell County

Voting continues to run smoothly in Lockhart.

Counting in-person and mail-in ballots, more than 4,000 people have voted in Caldwell County as of Tuesday Oct. 21. “I’m really, really amazed at the turnout,” Election Administrator Pamela Ohlendorf said.

In-person voters at the county’s two polling places can expect a 5-minute line in the morning and no delay the day goes on, Ohlendorf said. Mail-in drop-off ballot traffic has been steady, but there has been no wait.

The county enforces a 6-foot social distancing rule for those waiting in line, and election employees are required to wear masks. On Thursday, most voters were also wearing masks.

— Harrison Young

Update Oct. 20, 11 p.m. — First week of mail-in voting soars ahead of 2016

Analysis of Travis County totals for the first week of voting in 2020 vs. 2016 indicates a huge increase in mail-in voting but a similar cumulative number of votes cast.

According to data published by Texas Secretary of State Ruth R. Hughs, 38,800 Travis County residents voted by mail during the first week, surpassing the entire 2016 election number. A record 97% of Travis County residents are registered to vote (854,577 people), besting 2016 when 92% of county residents were registered (725,041 people).  

The chart above examines the percentage of registered Travis County voters that submitted votes by mail this year and in 2016. County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir is preparing for up to 12% of residents to vote by mail. Though the current cumulative percentage of mailed votes is still under 5%, the share of mailed votes this year was higher than in 2016 on every day but Day 6.

In the chart above, in-person voting and totals of mail-in and in-person votes are compared by percentage of registered voters across the first week of early voting for 2016 and 2020. For five of seven days, the share of in-person votes was higher in 2016. As a note, early voting began on a Tuesday this year while it opened on a Monday in 2016, which accounts for their lowest turnout falling on their respective Sundays — Day 6 in 2020, Day 7 in 2016.

The chart above examines the cumulative percentage of registered voters to vote in-person and the combined number of mailed-in and in-person votes cast over the week. Both years’ cumulative turnout hovered around the low 30s. However, in-person turnout was only .5% higher on average that year.

Two things to keep in mind: 

— Early voting is running 18 days this year compared to only 12 days in 2016.

— The lowest daily vote share in 2016 fell on the seventh day of early voting. It is possible that the 2020 cumulative turnout will fall behind 2016 in a few days before retaking the lead  as early voting continues.

— Ram Rodriguez

Update, October 20 2:35 p.m. — Voter turnout low in St. John’s neighborhood

The Virginia L. Brown Recreation Center in Northeast Austin was quiet today, and traffic at the polling place has been slow since voting started. 

The center is located in the heart of the St. John’s neighborhood, an ethnically diverse working-class area.

Of the 37 polling locations in the county, the recreation center has seen the lowest number of in-person and mail-in drop-off ballots — 3,098.  

On Tuesday most people entering the center parking lot were visiting the St. John’s Public Library, which shares a building with the voting center. 

—Madi Donham

Data visualization by Ram Rodriguez

Update Oct. 19, 2:30 p.m. — Polls efficient at Millennium Youth Complex 

Midday Monday voters breezed in and out of the the Millennium Youth Complex in East Austin.

“It was very quick and easy. I’m super impressed,” said Katie Tudor, a 26-year-old social worker who cast a ballot at the complex.

Her roommate had previously voted at the Millenium Youth Complex and told her how smoothly it went. Tudor used the Travis County Wait Time Map to see that the site had a zero to 20 minute wait, she said.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir called the site one of Travis County’s five “mega voting centers,” due to its capacity for voters and ample parking. 

As of Sunday night, 4,711 people had voted at the complex.

— Benton Graham

Update Oct. 17  11 p.m. — Steady stream of voters at Austin Central Library

Austin Central Library saw a steady stream of voters and short wait times on Saturday afternoon. 

Ballot machines circled an empty event hall right inside the library entrance facing First Street. Masked Volunteers held the door open and greeted the voters. Several children and even a baby accompanied their parents. Volunteers gave voters finger gloves and hand sanitizer and“I voted” stickers to voters.

As of Saturday evening, more than 7,046 votes had been cast at the Library, and 924 voters cast their ballot on Saturday.

— Sumaiya Malik

Update Oct. 16, 3:50 p.m. — Voting lines remain short in Hays County

Voting wait times continue to be short in Hays County. 

Ballots from 20,914 early voters and 8,379 absentee voters — nearly 20% of registered voters in Hays County — had been cast as of mid-afternoon on Oct. 16.

There have been no  poll watcher sightings in Hays County, Hays County Election Administrator Jennifer Anderson said. Anderson anticipates the county will see poll watchers on Election Day, which is not uncommon, she added.

Lawful electioneering — campaigners publicly supporting their candidates at least 100 feet away from polling centers — has been consistent outside the Hays County Government Center. 

—Madi Donham

Update Oct. 15, 5:50 p.m. — Voting in Bastrop County holding steady

Early voting continues to be brisk in Bastrop County with a few voters arriving on Thursday at the county’s four polling locations before they opened at 8 a.m.  

Wait times have averaged around 10 minutes, said Sarah Strong, a Bastrop County elections administration assistant.

As of Thursday at 5 p.m., at least 7,350 of the more than 52,000 registered voters in the county have voted in-person, and more than 2,828 mail-in ballots have been submitted, Elections Administration Assistant Megan Welch said.

At this point during the 2016 presidential election, about 6,900 voters total had cast ballots, Strong added.

— Jillian Price

Update Oct. 15, 4:56  p.m. – Caldwell County polling places busy

Voters are still showing up in droves to the county’s two polling places — the Luling Civic Center and Scott Annex Building, both in Lockhart — Election Administrator Pamela Ohlendorf said.

“It’s been overwhelming, but it’s worth it,” she said. 

Aside from a minor issue involving one unreadable ballot, voting machines are functioning well, Ohlendorf said. As of Thursday afternoon, about 1,700 votes were cast during the last two days at the civic center and about 600votes at the Scott Annex building.

—Harrison Young

Update Oct. 15, 12:30 p.m. — Travis County sees strong turnout on first days of early voting

Travis County voters showed up in large numbers on the first two days of early voting. According to the Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, 74,040 people voted in person on Tuesday and Wednesday. An additional 23,043 voters submitted mail-in ballots. 

The total is a slight increase compared to the first two days of early voting in the 2016 presidential election, when 72,364 people cast ballots during the first two days of early voting.

Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant also noted that voter enthusiasm seems to be particularly high, as a record 97% of the county is registered to vote

— Benton Graham

Update Oct. 14, 2:30 p.m. — Hays County residents confused on poll opening times 

Lupita Lopez waits for the early voting doors to open at the Hays County Government Center on Wednesday, October 14, 2020. After thinking early voting started at 7 a.m., she stayed to be first in line when doors would open at 10 a.m. Madi Donham/Reporting Texas

Lupita Lopez showed up at 7 a.m. at the Hays County Government Center in San Marcos to vote with her eldery parents, but the polling place wouldn’t open until 10 a.m. for in-person voting.

“Voting rules and updates are iffy,” Lopez said.

Lopez set up a camping chair in front of the center to wait to vote. “That’s why I’m sitting here, to be the first in line and take care of my parents,” Lopez said. 

As other voters, most of whom believed the doors would open at 7 a.m., approached the building, Lopez told them voting would start at 10 a.m.

“Don’t forget to bring me doughnuts when you come back,” she said as voters returned to their cars.

Starting Oct. 17, the center will open for in-person voting at 7 a.m.

The only absentee ballot drop-off box in Hays County is also located at the government center, which opens at 8 a.m. for drop-off ballots. With only a few voters, drop-offs were quick on Wednesday morning.

—Madi Donham

Update Oct. 13, 9 p.m. — Turnout high in Williamson County

Voters fill out ballots at the Randalls on Gattis School Road in Round Rock on Oct. 13, 2020. Sumaiya Malik/Reporting Texas

On the first day of early voting in Williamson County, masked voters wrapped around Randall’s grocery store on Gattis School Road in Round Rock, where the wait time was upward of 45 minutes. Other polling locations, in Leander and Sun City, reported similar wait times.

 “It is going to be the largest turnout that this county has ever seen,” Williamson County Election Administrator Chris Davis said.  “We’re encouraging most people not to wait till Election Day — if they’re going to vote in person to vote during early voting.”  

The only mail-in ballot drop-off location in the county, near the Williamson County Adult Probation center, had no wait time. Voters strolled in spaced far apart, most wearing masks. 

 “Early voting will be 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day except for Sunday where it will be 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.,” Davis said.

County officials say 31,234 people voted during the first day of early voting,

— Sumaiya Malik