I am informed that the city secretary for the City of Bartlett in Williamson County has asserted once again for the fourth year running that there is “no state law” requiring the city to conduct early voting within its city limits during the entirety of the early voting period for the May election, and that despite the fact that in-person early voting is to be conducted from April 27, 2015 through May 5, 2015, there will only be one day of early voting within the City of Bartlett city limits; namely on Saturday, May 2nd. This is both annoying and wrong, and a disservice to the voters of that city, but it may also be a shortcut chosen by other political entities as well, given that various other entities inside Williamson County also have weirdly truncated and limited early voting.
Last year, in response to complaints about the lack of early voting, the Temple Daily Telegraph ran a story asserting the city’s position that an election services contract with Williamson County justified the lack of early voting locations. The story is behind a paywall, but there’s not much point in reading it, given that the city’s premise is wrong and is flatly contradicted by state law, as I’ve explained before.
The May elections are coming up, and the voters in thousands of cities, school districts, and a myriad of other special and general law districts will be going to the polls – as ever, the Texas Secretary of State has a handy (if somewhat daunting) calendar describing the procedural deadlines and events before and after the May election date.
I want to be clear that it is emphatically not okay for a city, a school district, or any other entity to fail to offer early voting at its main place of business for each day of the early voting period – Section 85.002 of the Texas Election Code is unambiguously clear on this point. To recap – if your city is having an election, then there has to be a main early voting polling place inside your city limits, and it has to be open at least during regular business hours every weekday of the early voting period. There’s no intervening or superseding statute that “forgives” or “excuses” not providing this minimal level of in-person early voting.
As frustrating as it is to see that a number of political subdivisions have failed to provide the requisite number of hours of early voting within their jurisdictional boundaries (and therefore have indicated that they will be breaking state law), I am mindful of the reasons why even the best-intentioned public employees might be inclined to take this admittedly illegal shortcut.
In a great number of political jurisdictions, the job of conducting the local election falls to whichever public employee was slowest to say “not it.”
The truth is that running a local election is a tedious and largely thankless task that has gotten more complicated and harder over the last decade and a half, given that (1) ballots must be prepared and mailed out to military and overseas voters not later than 45 days before the election; (2) accessible voting systems must be available at all early voting and Election Day polling places, and therefore must be leased, programmed with ballots, tested, and correctly installed; (3) intergovernmental joint election agreements and election services contracts must be negotiated at least three months or more before Election Day; (4) election expenses have to be budgeted and accounted for in local government budgets almost a full year prior to being incurred; (5) legal notices must be posted, election workers must be hired, polling places must be found, candidate applications must be reviewed, public records must be archived, public meetings must be conducted, voter registration lists must be ordered, posters printed, supplies gathered, training sessions scheduled …, and on, and on, in an unending, more-or-less year-long cycle of bureaucratic management before and after each election.
And so … mistakes happen. Steps are skipped. Inconvenient obligations are forgotten or passed over. As the infrastructure of democratic participation is expensive and tedious to maintain, and as the actual labor is sometimes delegated to those who are least trained, or least inclined, or least equipped to preserve the niceties of procedural regularity, compliance with the law becomes a luxury not afforded to every voter.
The pressures associated with conducting an election may explain why entities like the City of Bartlett break the law. But an explanation is not an excuse. Political subdivisions throughout the state must adhere to the voting schedule imposed by the state legislature, whether it is tedious to do so or not.