Counties prepare for big election turnouts

Published: Mar. 29, 2016 at 9:27 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 13, 2016 at 4:51 PM CDT
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AMARILLO, TX (KFDA) - Potter and Randall counties are getting ready for what election officials believe will be a huge turnout for the 2016 presidential election.

Their aim? According to the chief election administrators for both counties, it is to streamline the "check-in" process and get voters in and out of the polling places as quickly as possible on Election Day, which falls on Nov. 8.

Melynn Huntley runs the elections operations for Potter County; her counterpart in Randall County is Shannon Lackey. Both officials say one key to streamlining the process involves getting more people to vote early.

They both are aiming to have at least 50 percent of their counties' registered voters cast their ballots early.

As Huntley said, "We're giving voters 12 days to vote early or 12 hours to vote on Election Day. Voters will have to choose whether they want to stand in line longer on Election Day."

The counties both have overhauled their election process in recent years, creating vote centers. Randall County has 14 such centers, while Potter County has 16 of them. Residents can vote at any of the centers located within their county of residence. Prior to the creation of the centers, voters were restricted to voting only at their designated precincts.

The new process has created some confusion among voters who at times don't know where to go, both officials acknowledged.

Lackey said the counties are two of about 30 counties in Texas with such vote centers; Texas has 254 counties. "We had hearings and then we applied to the secretary of state's office to set up the vote centers," Lackey said. "After we held a couple of elections, we were deemed 'successful,'" she said.

"Our goal always is to make things better for the voters," Lackey said. Convenience is the key, she said, adding that the county's effort to push for early voting is aimed at improving the voting experience for county residents.

Randall County has about 81,000 registered voters and Lackey said her goal for the 2016

general election is to prepare for about 65,000 voters.

She said the delay occurs at "check-in." Once voters get checked in at the vote center, they're usually done in a little more than two minutes. She is examining whether to add more check-in stations.

The four busiest vote centers in Randall County are at the County Annex on South Georgia Street, Region 16 at the corner of Hillside Road and Bell Street, Redeemer Christian Church on Soncy Road and at the Randall County Justice Center in Canyon, Lackey said.

"We have no intention of opening another voting center," Lackey said. "But we certainly do intend to strongly encourage people to vote early."

Huntley faces issues that are nearly identical to those in Randall County.

Of the 16 vote centers in Potter County, Huntley said the "busiest by far" is the center at Buzula Furniture on Washington Street and Interstate 40, followed by Grace Community Church at Plains Boulevard and Western Street, HIllside Northwest Church on Tascosa Road and Pride Home Center.

The Pride Home Center site vote traffic surprises Huntley, she said. "It's in a low-turnout neighborhood" at 24th and Grand, according to Huntley, but it has become among the busiest of the vote centers.

Huntley, who said Potter County currently has about 52,000 registered voters, expects a voter turnout this year of about 30,000. "We think we'll be close to the record-setting year of 2008," she said. Huntley said turnout seems to be greater in presidential election years when there's no incumbent president on the ballot, which was the case in 2008. Huntley added that she expects the voter registration rolls to increase by about 4,000 residents by the time the election rolls around.

She added that the federal government has set a goal to have no voter standing in line "more than 45 minutes," and she intends for Potter County to make voting more efficient and pleasant for those who decide to vote on Election Day.

One issue that both election officials face are residents who "think they can vote in either county," Huntley said, explaining that during the primary this spring, "We had voters from Randall County come here thinking they could vote in Potter County. They would stand in long lines and then were told they were in the wrong county."

Huntley said she hopes to have I-Pads available for election judges to help direct voter traffic to prevent such confusion during the general election this fall.

Huntley also noted that she intends to have a system that will enable election judges to call the county election headquarters in downtown Amarillo "when they have people waiting longer than 15 minutes in line." That would allow officials to instruct the judges to direct voters to locations where the lines are shorter, she said.

Election Day can produce some headaches, both officials conceded.

In Randall County, the last person voting in this year's primary election walked out of the County Annex polling place at 8:46 p.m. after showing up to vote precisely at 7, when voting ended, said Lackey. In Potter County, the last person finished voting at 7:35 p.m., Huntley said. The push for early voting is aimed at reducing the wait times on Nov. 8, they both explained.

Technology is both elections officials' friend, said Lackey. "I hope the Legislature will allow online voting," Lackey said. "People under the age of 30 don't write anything down on paper," she said. "If it doesn't get done on the phone, it doesn't get done."

Huntley also sees an opportunity to set turnout records with this election. She told of hearing about a woman in her 40s who this year, during the primary, told county election staffers she and her husband were voting "for the first time in their lives. I cannot predict how many of those folks are out there."

Moreover, she said, "I was told when I started working here about a gentleman in his 90s who said he voted for the first time in the 2008 election."

The voters have the responsibility to "figure out where to vote," Huntley said. "They need to take the time to figure it out and do their homework.

"Neither county has the budget to hire more people," Huntley said, "so we need voters to do their part."

Huntley added, "Whoever wins their races after the election will be happy, but I'm pretty sure that my ecstasy on Nov. 9 will beat theirs."

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