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One South Texas county in the Rio Grande Valley is aiming to boost voter participation with innovative voting equipment and a new, more convenient way for voters to cast ballots on Election Day.

For a total of $5.5 million, Hidalgo County’s Elections Department recently purchased 1,294 new HART Verity Touch voting machines that will be deployed starting with the next general election in November 2018. The county believes the state-of-the-art, lightweight, and compact design will not only be easier for election workers to transport and set up, but will greatly benefit voters. The user-friendly touchscreen allows voters to easily adjust the font size, screen contrast, and language; write in candidates, and change their selections, if necessary, without assistance.

A mock election was held last week at the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court chambers as the Elections Department hosted an “Open House” for the public to try the new Hart Verity Touch machines.

In another effort to improve the voting experience, Hidalgo County applied for the “Countywide Polling Place Program” with the Office of the Secretary of State. This program, originally established by the Texas Legislature in 2005, allows voters to cast their ballot at any polling location within the county on Election Day – instead of limiting voters to their respective precinct’s polling location. To date, 42 counties across the state have successfully applied for countywide polling.

Last month, Hidalgo County Commissioners Court unanimously approved the county’s participation in the program for its November 2017 constitutional amendment election.

As the first in the region to adopt countywide polling places, Hidalgo County’s Elections Department is excited to participate in the program.

Previous polling locations will be used initially, and a survey will be completed with the assistance of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) for future polling locations.

Convenience for voters is the biggest benefit of countywide vote centers. Fern McClaugherty, a local political activist, believes the implementation of countywide voting centers will also lessen the chance of illegal activities, namely voter fraud and intimidation. “We don’t have enough people to work each one of these polling places,” McClaugherty told commissioners at their June 27 meeting, discussing the link between understaffed voting centers and the likelihood of foul play. By consolidating the number of polling locations and giving residents more options in terms of where they can vote, the county has a greater chance of enhancing accountability and restoring the integrity of its election process.

While voter turnout in Hidalgo County for the 2016 presidential election reached a record 51.1 percent of registered voters, Yvonne Ramón, Hidalgo County Elections Administrator, looks forward to a surge in voter participation with these new user-friendly voting machines and countywide polling locations.

For nine years, Ramón has pushed for electronic check-in voting systems for countywide polling locations. She believes, “the saddest thing for voters is to be turned away…to most people who come at 6:50 pm, we have to refuse their vote.”

Ramón further states, “Our future is very bright.”