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Harris County advances voting centers plan

February 13, 2019

Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman’s plan to shift to countywide voting centers inched forward this week when Commissioners Court unanimously agreed to file an application with the secretary of state asking permission.

Trautman hopes to incrementally open voting centers, where any county resident can cast a ballot on Election Day. Harris County currently uses voting centers for early balloting, but residents are required to use their assigned precinct locations on Election Day.

Michael Winn, who helped launch voting centers in Travis County before joining Trautman’s staff in January, said the change boosted turnout by 10 to 12 percent there. The centers offer voters more flexibility to cast ballots near their school or place of employment, which may be far from their assigned polling place.

The secretary of state must sign off on Harris County’s proposal before Trautman may proceed. She plans to open several Election Day voting centers in a low turnout election, such as a May school board balloting, before moving to a large-scale deployment for a general election.

The clerk’s office said it has held seven public meetings on the proposal and scores of speakers have given testimony at Commissioners Court. Most have been supportive, Trautman said, though some residents have expressed concern their precinct polling places would be closed in favor of distant voting centers.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said some of his constituents said they cherish the polling places where they have cast ballots for decades and wish them to remain open.

Trautman said once voting centers are in place, she only would consider consolidating precinct polling sites with the consent of residents. Harris County currently operates more than 700 polling places during high-turnout elections.

Zach Despart covers Harris County for the Chronicle. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at zach.despart@chron.com .

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