Wait times, worker shortage in March has Dallas County leaders scrambling ahead of May elections
Gladys Ivy waited four hours to vote in last month’s primary election on March 1. The day was hot, and she had errands to run, but Ivy stayed put.
“I didn’t want to leave, and go someplace else, and sit in line longer than I already [had],” she recalled.
Problems at the polls in Dallas County last month have prompted election officials to consider adjusting their plans for May. Under a new proposal, local elections on May 7th and a state runoff on May 24th would have fewer voting locations because there aren’t enough poll workers to run the sites.
County commissioners are set to vote on the plan at a Wednesday meeting.
Not everyone thinks the problem is simply a lack of staff, however. Some county commissioners who oversee the elections department blame department management for delays. Other people point to a reluctance among some would-be election judges who fear prosecution under a new Texas law that strengthens the role of partisan poll watchers.
Waiting at the curb
Ivy, a 71-year-old Lancaster resident, wanted to vote curbside because she mostly uses a wheelchair outside of her home. She arrived at Disciple Central Community Church in DeSoto between 11:30 and 11:45 a.m., but didn't cast a ballot until around 3:40 p.m.
She said some cars pulled away without getting any time with a voting machine; an election worker told her the machines’ batteries were dwindling as voters marked the long ballot.
Elections Director Michael Scarpello told county commissioners recently a huge reason for problems at the polls was a lack of on-the-ground election workers, including the election judges who run the sites.
“On February 27th, when we [handed] out the supplies to the judges, we had 71 no-shows,” he said.
Scarpello wants to avoid future problems by consolidating dozens of county voting locations. He’s proposed eliminating roughly 60 of approximately 460 Election Day Vote Centers for May 7 and May 24. On primary day, 67 sites saw fewer than 100 voters.
Scarpello said elections, like the private sector, faces a labor shortage. He said 628 co-judges worked on primary day, out of a desired 936. After scrambling for replacements, the department had eight sites that didn’t open due to a lack of judges. They were also short dozens of election clerks and several inspectors.
Others say the struggle to staff polling places has roots in the recently passed election law SB1. Republican state lawmakers pushed it through over the objections of voting rights advocates, and Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law in September.
Kristy Noble, chair of the Dallas County Democratic Party, pointed to the ripple effect of new identification requirements for mail-in ballots, which are available only to specific groups of voters: people sick or with a disability, those 65 years old or older, those expected to give birth around the time of the election, people in jail or those out of town during the voting period.
Almost 25,000 mail-in ballots were rejected statewide, including 716 in Dallas County, according to data released by the Texas Secretary of State’s office.
Noble noted over 6% of mail-in ballots in the county were rejected because of the new identification requirements. Those voters, she said, had to show up in person if they wanted to vote, leading to longer queues to vote curbside.
“Those are the same type of folks who are not going to be able to go into the voting location and need that curbside voting assistance,” she said.
Scarpello told KERA there wasn’t any scientific evidence to support this theory, but agreed the new confusion around mail-in ballots “probably played a factor” in driving people to vote curbside.
Scarpello cited other reasons for a rocky election, including department turnover and new election guidance from the state arriving up to one day before the primary.
County elected officials, whose jobs depend on the support of voters, say no one should wait for hours to vote, nor arrive at a polling place during voting hours only to confront a locked door. Some laid the blame at Scarpello’s feet.
“How many voters were turned away because a location wasn’t open, or because no one came outside for curbside voting,” Commissioner John Wiley Price asked. “Operationally, you should know better.”
Commissioner Elba Garcia, who represents western Dallas County, also chided Scarpello for the many problems with machines that she witnessed on March 1.
“We had a lot of technical issues,” she said. “We need to do better than that.”
Scarpello also said some election judges were afraid of being prosecuted under a provision of the law related to partisan poll watchers. SB 1 makes it a misdemeanor offense for a worker to “knowingly prevents a watcher from observing an activity or procedure the person knows the watcher is entitled to observe.”
Election judge Kris Farrell said some of her colleagues had heard about an earlier bill that didn’t become law, which had more potential violations with more severe consequences for election workers.
“So they still thought, ‘oh my God I could go to jail,’” she said. “And I think there was paranoia about that.”
Farrell, who has been an election judge for about 12 years and was formerly a co-director of elections for the county Democratic Party, said communication from the elections department was not good. But long hours and bad weather at the end of February also contributed to a shortage of workers.
Plus, there was a lack of familiar faces — the people who poll workers used to call directly to ask for help or clarification.
“There was a new team at the elections department. There was a new team at the Democratic Party office. There was a new team at the Republican office,” Farrell said. “These were not people that you knew yet. You didn’t have a relationship with them.”
Dallas County isn’t the only place where the ranks of poll workers have diminished. A Brennan Report for Justice poll found that 30% of election workers know colleagues who have stopped working elections because of fears for their safety or increased threats.
Dropping down to about 400 vote centers for the May elections would put Dallas County closer to Tarrant and Denton Counties, which have 191 and 131 Election Day vote centers, respectively, according to Scarpello’s presentation.
(A “vote center” is where any registered voter can cast a ballot, regardless of where they live in the county.)
“In all likelihood, there’s going to be some that have to close anyway because there’s not going to be staff there at all,” said Commissioner J. J. Koch, who represents the Park Cities and the northwestern portions of Dallas County.
The reduction in polling places will only be for May 7 and May 24. Come November, the county will return to about 460 vote centers.
To decide on the proposed list of polling sites that would go dark, Scarpello looked at how close a site was to another polling location, turnout projections, accessibility for people with disabilities and proximity to public transportation. He said he consulted a wide variety of stakeholders, including area cities and political party chairs.
“It is untenable for us to man 460 polling locations, particularly for the May 7th and May 24th elections,” said Jennifer Stoddard-Hajdu, chair of the Dallas County GOP, as she urged commissioners to pass the consolidation plan.
“The only objection I could see to doing that is to create — on purpose — chaos,” she said.
Noble told KERA she had no specific objection to removing any of the proposed sites but wanted to keep the reduction to around 10% of the total, or about 46 sites.
Aside from consolidating locations, officials are trying to do something about wages. Dallas County commissioners bumped pay for election judges from $18 to $20 an hour and added pay for a judge’s five-hour Election Day training. Clerks make $16 an hour.
Scarpello also promised to ramp up recruitment.
Price, whose district includes southern and eastern Dallas County, said the elections department should train county staff that work in other departments to work the election, if necessary, under a 2019 order of the commissioners court.
“We’ve always trained people to be ready for the elections,” Price said at a meeting last week.
Scarpello said he would soon bring commissioners a proposal that offers more pay to county staff who cross train for elections.
Ivy, the Lancaster resident who waited hours to vote in March, said her plan for the upcoming runoffs is to show up during early voting, like she usually does. She couldn’t last month because she was caring for sick relatives.
Thinking of her sharecropper parents kept her going on primary day, she said.
“I could hear my mom and dad saying to me, ‘It’s a privilege to vote. And you must vote. People died for our freedom to vote.’”
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