Early voting begins Monday, giving Texas voters another opportunity to decide on constitutional questions, bond propositions, tax increase elections and more. But this election cycle will feature at least one new change that may surprise some.
Thanks to a new law passed last session — House Bill 1888 — most local officials are now banned from using the highly controversial practice of “rolling polling.” Until recently, it allowed local governments to target specific voters at particular times during the early voting period with mobile voting sites.
In theory, the practice was supposed to be a way to get hard-to-reach voters to the polls. But in reality, rolling polling enabled a handful of bad actors to harvest voters likely to be sympathetic to the government’s cause.
For example, a school district wanting voters to approve debt for new facilities might just park a mobile voting site outside of a high school football game on a Friday night. Or school officials might only put temporary polling places at friendly sites, such as school campuses. Both scenarios were alleged to have happened.
In describing the problem, Rep. Greg Bonnen, the House bill author, put it this way: “The flexibility of polling locations was designed to accommodate more voters near their homes or workplaces, but some subdivisions of the state have abused this flexibility and targeted desirable voting populations at the exclusion of others.”
How frequently these abuses were happening is a matter of debate. After all, not many people knew about rolling polling and even fewer were willing to expose it. But there’s no doubt that it’d been going on for a while.
In 2015, the Texas Public Policy Foundation published its first research report on rolling polling, spotlighting the ever-shifting locations of two school districts: Cypress Fairbanks ISD and Frisco ISD. According to the Foundation’s report: “Frisco ISD had 49 different polling locations during the early voting period, each being used for only one day, with no constant locations from day to day. Cy-Fair ISD had 52 different polling locations during the early voting period, each used for only one day.”
Examples like this as well as others fueled the push for change last session. With the passage of HB 1888, state lawmakers hope to boost the public’s confidence in Texas elections and protect taxpayers from a predatory practice. It’s likely that they’ll see success on both accounts.
The new law is relatively straightforward. Beginning this cycle, temporary branch polling places must remain open for the full duration of the 12-day early voting period. That’s pretty much it.
Though it might seem modest, that one change ends a terrible practice that saw local officials engage in what Bonnen called the “selective harvesting of targeted voters” for the purposes of passing bonds and getting more tax money. Now voters everywhere — but especially those of rural and working class stripes — will have increased access to a more predictable playing field.
With the problem of rolling polling now solved, voters can worry less about how an election is conducted and more about what’s on the actual ballot.