County extends early voting at three sites

UPDATE – 3:28 p.m. 

Amid allegations of voter suppression, Hays County Commissioners Friday unanimously approved to extend early voting at three sites, including at the LBJ Student Center at Texas State University, during a special called meeting.

Early voting will take place Nov. 1-2 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Live Oak Health Center (Precinct 1), LBJ Student Center (Precinct 3) and the Belterra Welcome Center (Precinct 4). 

The decision to add polling locations at all three sites came after concerns from commissioners about being balanced in their approach to adding voter locations. 

Lon Shell, Hays County Pct. 3 commissioner, said he was not initially comfortable with the idea of adding a polling location only at Texas State University, as requested by Democratic leaders in a letter to the county.  After a lengthy discussion in executive session, Shell said he was pleased to reach a conclusion that was not biased towards one precinct or the other. 

Due to an influx of over 1,200 registered voters from Texas State University, the LBJ Student Center will now host a new polling location on Election Day, a decision that required at least 500 registered voters, a feat that was unprecedented in previous elections. 

“It was never the intention of the county to suppress any votes and we are encouraged that we have seen so many folks come out to vote,” said Debbie Ingalsbe, Hays County Pct. 1 commissioner. “We’re very proud of that.” 

Shell said the issue of voter suppression was not evident during the days of early voting at Texas State, where The Hays Free Press reported waiting lines of around 2 hours for students. 

“This is not an issue of voter suppression, absolutely not,” Shell said. “We expected high voter turnout, and that did not come into play. It’s unfortunate to see this issue turn partisan.” 

Shell said without the lawsuit threats, the special meeting would not have been possible, as a 72-hour notice is required to schedule a meeting under normal circumstances. 

As per state law, a five-day notice must be issued in the paper of record before newly granted polls could open, which is the reason why the polling sites will not be operational until Nov. 1. 

Commissioners did not comment as to how much the addition of new polling sites would cost Hays County, but said the county has enough polling workers to make the new locations run functionally.

EARLIER 

Long lines and steep wait times for students at Texas State University to vote early in the 2018 midterm elections is leading some to claim voter suppression on the part of officials.

With possible litigation looming, the Hays County Commissioners Court is holding an emergency meeting at noon Friday to address the issue.

At the center of the argument is Hays County and Central Texas Democrats who are fighting to extend early voting days at Texas State, citing many students don’t have access to travel to other polling stations.

Over the past week, students have waited in lines at the LBJ Student Center that have exceeded two-hours in length.

“We’ve had students wait in line for two hours and then leave because they have to go to class,” said Erin Zwiener, Democratic Candidate for Texas House District 45. “We put together a letter requesting more days of early voting from the Commissioners Court. Students are struggling to vote, and without transportation to other polling locations, they might not be able to.”

Texas State University’s polling location was only open for three days for early voting as determined by the county, while other locations had two weeks of early voting.

According to Hays County, approximately 19,400 voters went to the polls on Oct. 22-24, which was around 5,700 more voters than the first three days of the 2016 Presidential Election.

Hays County’s Commissioner’s Court must approve extending early voting days on campus.

However, the Texas Civil Rights Project, on behalf of two Texas State students, the MOVE Texas Action Fund and the League of Women Voters Hays County, sent a letter to officials demanding the county reopen the on-campus polling site in order to avoid litigation.

According to a TCRP press release, the county’s “failure to extend the time for a temporary early voting location on campus is against the law,” citing it violates the U.S Constitution and the Texas Election Code. The TCRP gave Hays County officials a deadline of noon Oct. 26 for a response.

Students wait in line at the LBJ Student Center at Texas State University to participate in early voting for the 2018 midterm elections. Some students have waited in line for upwards of two hours, according to reports. (Photo by Erin Zweiner)

Furor over the issue grew Thursday when Wally Kinney, president of the North Hays Republican Group, called for residents to email Hays County Pct. 2 Commissioner Mark Jones to share dissent on the possibility extending early voting at the on-campus site. 

The email was sent to a high ranking member of the Republican party in Dripping Springs, according to sources in contact with The Hays Free Press and News-Dispatch.

“Please email Commissioner Mark Jones today and urge him not to allow extended voting times or days for students at Texas State University,” Kinney said in the email. “If we are to change the rules in the middle of the game to favor Democrats, and we sure don’t want to do that in this – what is going to be – a close election as it is.”

Jayme Blaschke, director of media relations at Texas State University, said the university does not offer or manage early voting.

“Hays County, through recent history, has traditionally requested for a three day period of early voting,” Blaschke said. “The university does not determine, manage request or dictate to the county when early voting will be available. If the county was to make a determination to extend early voting at Texas State, the university would discuss this matter with the county to accommodate a recommendation.”

To help alleviate some of the concerns, Hays County officials released a statement on Oct. 25 stating that the Capital Area Rural Transportation System (CARTS) will provide free rides to and from polling locations during early voting and election day.

Ryan Seidel, a Texas State University student, could not vote during early voting at the university, despite trying to stay in line to vote before being forced to leave to attend class.

“They only had four machines set up when I checked, which is definitely not enough to accommodate the school, assuming even half the population registered to vote. It’s just unrealistic,” Seidel said. “Somehow, the school or the county ignored the fact that LBJ is currently under construction so half the building is closed down and it’s just ridiculous that this was the polling location.”

Seidel said an argument could be made for voter suppression, but is more concerned with what he believes is a lack of planning from officials to accommodate the student population, especially during an election with record-breaking turnout.

“It wasn’t a private voting experience at all. Every time I’ve voted in the past, it was always held in a gymnasium where there are space and privacy between machines,” Seidel said. “The voting machines were on two little tables in a hallway where thousands of students are walking by to go to class or get something to eat at the student center.

Seidel suggested that the times to vote should be extended, to accommodate students who have class in the morning and work in the afternoons, which hindered the ability for people to wait in line.

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