The locations of vote centers across McLennan County will change as several regular locations have failed to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, leaving some elected officials unhappy with what they call a lack of access.
County Elections Administrator Kathy Van Wolfe told county commissioners and Waco council members Monday several polling locations opted out of the November election, while many more failed to meet ADA requirements. A new list was created, but County Commissioner Will Jones and John Kinnaird, District 3 Waco city council member, said the new list leaves large gaps where a large amount of voters reside without a nearby polling location.
But not everyone had a problem with the new list.
County Judge Scott Felton countered the complaints saying between public transportation, absentee voting, and vote centers that allow residents to vote at any polling location and not just the one in their precinct, there is no issue voting in McLennan County.
“I just don’t understand why we think we need more voting centers than we have right now,” Felton said.
In 2014, the county moved from 59 precinct-based polling locations to 40 vote centers, Van Wolfe said. As the state Legislature changed laws, the amount of vote centers dropped to 32, putting eight locations in each county commissioners’ precinct, she said.
“That’s been very successful. We’ve had lots of good comments from the voters on the convenience of this,” Van Wolfe said, adding the secretary of state deemed McLennan County as “successful” in using vote centers.
As the elections office has begun preparing for the November election, Van Wolfe said, several changes were made to where vote centers would be located. Due to the political climate, many church officials told county leaders they no longer wanted their building to be used as a vote center, Van Wolfe said. However, many more failed to meet ADA requirements, she said.
The Department of Justice performed a surprise inspection of county properties in 2011. By 2015, the DOJ and county leaders reached a 145-page agreement to address each of the more than 350 ADA violations. The county retained The Wallace Group Inc., as part of the agreement, as the independent licensed architect to certify compliance with ADA standards.
While the Department of Justice didn’t survey all of the county vote centers, The Wallace Group did.
“When we hired on The Wallace Group, the instructions were, if we got another DOJ review, we don’t want to be in violation after we’ve gone through what we’re going through now,” Felton said.
Jones said several of the locations dropped from the vote center list have been voting centers for as long as he’s lived in Precinct 3.
“You’re talking about quite a trip for somebody who lives on the west side of Waco, mine and Councilman (Jim) Holmes’ side of town, to either the center at MCC or in Woodway,” said Jones, adding a large population of older voters live in that area.
Van Wolfe said the county does not have a choice to open a vote center in a location that is not ADA compliant.
“They worked before,” Jones said.
“Now we’re under litigation,” Van Wolfe said.
Van Wolfe said her office asked the Department of Justice to allow it to continue using locations under the requirement they also include curbside voting or other alternatives.
“The DOJ said, ‘Absolutely no. They have to be compliant,’” she said.
Many of the locations cannot afford the type of upgrades needed and there is not money in the county’s elections department budget to cover those costs, she said.
Calvary Baptist Church on North 18th A Street, Central Christian Church on Lake Shore Drive, and Lake Shore Methodist Church on Park Lake Drive, and MHMR Center for Development Services on Waco Drive, among others, were all found to be non-compliant, Van Wolfe said.
Looking for locations
“ADA is prohibiting people from voting,” Jones said.
Kinnaird said the new locations leaves no nearby vote center in District 3 near Brookview and the Castle Heights area.
“I understand that people can go anywhere, but I think to encourage participation there needs to be some thought given to proximity,” he said. “The majority of my high population areas have nothing in their proximity.”
Van Wolfe said they have driven street by street seeking out additional locations and that if any elected leader had a suggestion for a place they’d be more than willing to hear them out. Waco ISD no longer allows vote centers to be located at elementary schools due to safety concerns, she said.
McLennan County commissioners must approve vote center locations at the July 25 meeting to have it ready for the November election, Van Wolfe said.
“With vote centers, you don’t have to vote in your area. You can vote anywhere.”
Felton and Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said any elected official with a suggested vote center location should reach out to the county election department prior to the meeting.