The Death of Mobile Polling Places Could Shrink Early Voting in Texas

Thanks to a new state law, rural and elderly voters are among those who could lose their early polling places next election.

More than 28,000 people voted at mobile polling places last year, or nearly 6 percent of all Travis County votes cast during the 2018 midterm election.
More than 28,000 people voted at mobile polling places last year, or nearly 6 percent of all Travis County votes cast during the 2018 midterm election. Sunny Sone

Thanks to a new state law, rural and elderly voters are among those who could lose their early polling places next election.

More than 28,000 people voted at mobile polling places last year, or nearly 6 percent of all Travis County votes cast during the 2018 midterm election.
More than 28,000 people voted at mobile polling places last year, or nearly 6 percent of all Travis County votes cast during the 2018 midterm election. Sunny Sone

The Texas Legislature never seems to pass up a chance to make voting harder, scarier, or more confusing. True to form, Texas was one of several states this year that restricted—rather than expanded—access to the polls.

HB 1888, which Governor Greg Abbott signed into law in June, goes into effect this week, effectively banning the use of mobile polling places, a strategy adopted by some counties to facilitate early voting in communities where people may have a harder time getting to a polling site. Travis County, for instance, has for the past several years operated dozens of temporary polling places at various times during the state’s two-week early voting window, opening up temporary sites at colleges, rural community centers, and senior living facilities. More than 28,000 people voted at those rotating polling sites last year, or nearly 6 percent of all Travis County votes cast during the 2018 midterm election.

However, since the county can’t afford to turn all of those temporary polling places into permanent early voting sites, as required by HB 1888, some areas accustomed to having early voting won’t get it during the 2020 election, according to Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir. “We’re struggling with what to do for some of these communities now,” DeBeauvoir told the Observer. “We won’t be able to open polling places that some people have gotten used to.”

Representative Greg Bonnen, the Friendswood Republican who spearheaded earlier attempts to kill mobile polling places, filed HB 1888 this session due to “the possibility that some authorities accommodate certain voting populations to the exclusion of others.” Critics contend that the law is just the latest voter suppression tactic by the state’s ruling GOP majority. Last session, lawmakers also proposed SB 9, a more draconian elections bill that would have raised criminal penalties for certain election-related offenses and made it harder to assist elderly or disabled voters.

Against the backdrop of a botched voter purge that targeted naturalized citizens, voting rights groups managed to defeat SB 9 and tank Abbott’s nomination of David Whitley to be Secretary of State last session. But HB 1888 squeaked through on a party-line vote.

“Texas has a very bad reputation when it comes to suppressing rather than promoting turnout,” DeBeauvoir said. “This is just one of many examples over the years. There’s no question about it, they don’t want everybody voting.”

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Michael Barajas is a staff writer covering civil rights for the Observer. You can reach him on Twitter or at [email protected].


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