The Texas Legislature is making another pass at ending an unfair and confusing early voting practice that is undermining the integrity of elections across the state.

The practice known as “rolling polling” – by which governmental entities, such as school districts, repeatedly move polling places to different locations during early voting – allows entities to target voters sympathetic to those in office and depress general turnout.

By ensuring that beneficiaries of a proposed tax increase or bond, for example, make up a higher percentage of the total vote, a school district can radically improve its chances to pass a tax increase or debt measure.

The Texas Legislature addressed, but didn’t eliminate, this unfair practice in 2015, so several lawmakers are trying again this year.

One is State Rep. Greg Bonnen (R-League City). His bill HB 2027, enacted last session, sought to improve the uniformity and consistency of the early voting process by requiring some mobile polling locations to be open for eight hours on at least two consecutive days.

This session, Bonnen introduced HB 1462, which guarantees that all polling places remain unmoved during the entire early voting period – for all elections held by all entities.

At a March 13 House Elections Committee hearing on the bill, Bonnen explained that political subdivisions had been granted authority to move polling places during the early voting period in an attempt to provide flexibility to election administrators. “While this flexibility has been used appropriately by many, other entities have used this authority to selectively target some voters at the exclusion of others,” he said.

Hidalgo County’s use of rolling polling to selectively target voters in a 2016 election to create a hospital district – by placing mobile polling places at over a dozen hospitals in the county – was so egregious that local voters filed a lawsuit to stop it.

Rolling polling is often abused by school districts looking to pass large bond packages. Frisco ISD tried it in 2014, and so did Cypress Fairbanks ISD.

In fact, CyFair ISD’s 2014 election for a $1.2 billion bond is what one witness who spoke in favor of Bonnen’s bill called “the poster child” for abusive rolling polling. The head of the Harris County Republican Party’s Ballot Security Committee, Alan Vera, testified:

Perhaps the most grievous of the many infractions was their mobile early voting polling stations.

These polling facilities were only located at district schools. They were only open during school hours. And the locations changed each and every day of early voting.

You wouldn’t have to be a full-blown conspiracy theorist to suspect that maybe CyFair was skewing the election to favor passage of the bond. Voters most likely to be at district school locations were more likely to favor the bond.

Working voters could not vote before or after work because the polls weren’t open before or after normal working hours. And every voter who called me was complaining that they couldn’t figure out WHERE to vote early because the locations changed each and every day.

Christopher Davis of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators testified against HB 1462, saying he thought Bonnen’s previous legislative fix was adequate to address the problem. Elections Committee chair Jodie Laubenberg (R-Murphy) interjected that her office received many complaints after HB 2027’s passage that it had failed to fix the problem. “Folks thought that bill was going to stabilize rolling polling,” she said. “It did not. It made it worse.”

James Quintero, head of Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Local Governance, favors eliminating rolling polling for a fiscal reason. Rolling polling, he testified, is a contributing factor in the growth of local government debt because it allows local governments to “target voters who may be predisposed to approve government debt” and provides them an opportunity to “tip scales in favor of excess government.”

A number of other bills to reduce or eliminate rolling polling have also been filed this session and are in various stages of the legislative process:

  • HB 675 was heard in the Elections Committee on March 20. HB 1825 is on the Elections Committee agenda for March 27. Both bills reduce, but don’t eliminate, rolling polling.
  • HB 2554 and its companion SB 1717, SB 703, and SB 2011 eliminate rolling polling. HB 3751 specifically eliminates rolling polling in bond or tax elections. None have yet been scheduled for a hearing.
  • HB 1773 and its companion bill SB 2091 not only eliminate rolling polling in bond or tax elections, but require more than 25 percent of registered voters to participate in such elections for a bond issuance or tax increase to take effect. These bills haven’t been scheduled for a hearing.

Establishing uniform polling locations and ending the unfair practice of rolling polling is one of five key election integrity reforms prioritized by Empower Texans for the 85th Legislative Session. The others are increasing ballot transparency, setting uniform election dates, reforming ballot-by-mail procedures, and closing Texas primary elections.

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Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.