Despite pandemic, counties ensure Texans’ right to safely vote

Lessons from July 14 primary inform preparations for Nov. 3 election

By Shiloh Perry

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Texas counties' successful execution of the July 14 primary runoff illustrated how adhering to health and safety protocols during a pandemic won't necessarily compromise the integrity of an election. In fact, counties attribute a great deal of that success to the safety procedures they implemented.

Carol Jackson, Washington County chief deputy of elections (left), and Washington County Clerk Beth Rothermel mark 6-foot spacing for the queue to vote at the American Legion Hall in Brenham on July 13. County elections staff and volunteers were preparing for the primary runoff election the next day.  Photo: Laura Skelding

With the Nov. 3 general election looming, county clerks and elections administrators say they aim to focus on simplifying safety protocols, planning for a bigger turnout and collaborating with their peers to ensure that Texans can safely exercise their right to vote in what promises to be a historic event.

Reducing voter confusion

Simple, easy-to-follow safety protocols reduce voters' and poll workers' confusion, said Brazos County Elections Administrator Trudy Hancock. Other counties echoed that safety procedures with clear directions can help elections run smoothly and promote the safety of those involved. 

Washington County Clerk Beth Rothermel sets up an optical scan ballot box at the American Legion Hall in Brenham the day before the primary runoff. Photo: Laura Skelding

"Our county purchased N95 masks, gloves and hand sanitizer for our poll workers," Hancock said. "We also made simple health and safety adjustments for our voters. I purchased disinfectant wipes to wipe down the machines, we used a device to disinfect the stylus pen between every voter, and our voting machines were 5 to 6 feet apart. Our thoroughness proves we can have in-person voting, and voters can be safe and assured their vote is secure."

"Voters get so anxious and worked up when they come to vote," said Washington County Clerk Beth Rothermel. "I would ask them to please remember everything you see in a polling place has to be there and organized the way that it is. Once voters saw the various safety measures that were in place for the July 14 runoff and understood why they were there, they seemed very relieved."

Scaling up for Nov. 3

The July primary runoff helped counties better prepare for the November general election, which experts predict will see a historically large turnout.  

Brazos County Elections Administrator Trudy Hancock (left) and Marla Calvin, election judge, space voting machines 6 feet apart at the Brazos Center in Bryan prior to the primary runoff on July 14. Photo: Laura Skelding

"July 14 proved to be a very successful dry run for the state," Chambers County Clerk Heather Hawthorne said. "Election officials across the state were able to put our safety measures in place and see how they worked. In preparation for the general election, we ask ourselves — how can we make it better in November when the election is going to be even bigger."

Despite already constrained budgets, counties are gearing up for longer lines because of November's longer ballot. This year's general election will be the first without straight-party voting. Improvements are focused on making election processes more efficient for voters while maintaining safety. 

"A challenge every county is probably facing is how to finance the general election now that early voting has been extended and there will be an increased number of mail-in ballots," said Williamson County Elections Administrator Chris Davis. "An extended voting period is already a high-stress situation, coupled with our attempts to be socially distant. We are looking at ways to streamline our curbside voting process. Bringing out the polling information and election machine takes a lot of time."

County election officials across Texas have implemented special measures to ensure safe voting during the COVID-19 pandemic, including providing masks and hand sanitizer to voters, using pen sanitizers and placing Plexiglas between election workers and voters. Photo: Laura Skelding

Collaborating with county peers

Ahead of the primary runoff, county election officials worked together to implement processes that follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidance for COVID-19. There is good reason to continue that cooperation as counties get ready for November.

Brazos County Elections Administrator Trudy Hancock posts signs outside the Brazos Center in Bryan alerting voters that curbside voting is available for the July 14 primary runoff. Photo: Laura Skelding

"In preparation for the July 14 primary, counties came together and shared ideas and resources," Davis said. "Our election efforts turned out pretty awesome because of it. The TAC Listserv allowed us to collaborate with our colleagues so much easier. We just leave an idea or question on there, and other county election officials that are going through similar experiences or that are knowledgeable on the topic can reply."

Through videoconferencing hosted by their affiliate associations and the Texas secretary of state's office, counties have opportunities to brainstorm over safety protocols and practices that could work best for their situation. Some counties have found helpful ideas by collaborating with both their county leaders and their counterparts across Texas, and they recommend it to those needing assistance.

"Counties are at our best when we are helping each other out," Rothermel said. "During this historic time, there is no example to follow, and there have been several webinars about the things to be done during this year’s elections. I want other counties to know that you are not alone in trying to figure out the difficulties, and I would also recommend for them to have an open dialogue with their county officials. This makes planning what to do easier."

Washington County Clerk Beth Rothermel (right), county staff and volunteers test the Plexiglas partitions set up to protect voters and poll workers.Photo: Laura Skelding