Gregg refines countywide voting strategy

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Three of Gregg County’s 21 polling locations – including Kilgore’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center – have been tapped for a merger with nearby polls as the county works to streamline voting throughout the area.

In particular, the Countywide Polling Place Program aims to allow voters to cast ballots at any poll in Gregg County rather than be tied to a specific precinct. Along the way, local officials hope to address confusion and a variety of other issues tied to select polling spots.

“The intention of the program and the intention of Gregg County is certainly not to go around closing polling places,” Gregg County Elections Administrator Kathryn Nealy told the Gregg County Commissioners Court during a public hearing on the program Monday morning. Rather, “Any Gregg County voter can go to any polling place on Election Day. This will help the voters vote at a close polling place, wherever they happen to be.”

As officials and volunteers craft a plan to submit to the state no later than August, they’re reviewing operations at the various polling locations and will determine which, if any, need to be modified or, in some cases, combined

November’s statewide constitutional amendment election will be the test case, Nealy told the commissioners, to better determine where the county voting machines and workers should be concentrate for the best effect.

According to the state’s guidelines, the county is permitted to reduce the number of its polling spots to 65 percent of the current 21 locations.

That’s not part of the working plan, Nealy emphasized.

“14 polling places would be as low as we could go” but that’s unlikely, she said. “I see no reason that we would want to close seven polling places. We may close one, two, three... If we’re taking one away we’ll then double up on another.”

At the moment, the three at the top of the list – for various reasons – are Spring Hill Junior High, Pine Tree Community Center and Kilgore’s MLK Community Center.

In the Spring Hill spot, not only is it close to another polling location, but it’s crowded and parking is an issue, especially during the school’s pickup/dropoff times. At the center in Pine Tree, it’s location is, again, confusing for voters: “For every voter that shows up, they have to send one away,” Nealy said.

At Kilgore’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center, there are issues with the facility and, particularly, with both its proximity to another poll and in its voter traffic.

The site is 1.3 miles from the Kay Street Community House, Nealy said, and not much further from Meadowbrook Golf & Event Center, both of which handle high turnout well.

“We’re going to look at that very seriously,” she added. “We have a hard time getting workers there, and it has the lowest turnout in the county; a high turnout there is 100 people.”

Five Gregg County residents also spoke during the public hearing.

Jeremiah Hunter said he’s very strongly in favor of the initiative.

Working the polls, “It was a very eye-opening experience in terms of the need for countywide polling,” he said. “One of the core functions of county government is to administer elections, so I encourage the court to do this right.”

Barbara Scott asked whether voters will still be assigned to a particular voter precinct.

Yes, Nealy answered, as ballots vary from one to another. The polls, however, will be identified by their name and location, not by the precinct where each is located, and voters will be able to cast their precincts’ ballot at any of them.

Responding to a question from speaker G. Floyd, Nealy noted the program is not a cost-saver: if a polling location is merged with another, its resources will still be needed at the other spot to handle the increase in voter traffic.

“It would still run around the same,” she said, approximately $30,000 for a regular election. “If we had less polling places open we would have to have more workers at the various locations.

“If we close polling places we’re going to man those places that are open. We’re going to rotate and fill those places so we still have enough persons and machines to handle the voters that show up.”

The chairmen for both the Gregg County Republican Party and Democratic Party both backed the initiative Monday, and no speakers opposed the effort.

Precinct 4 Commissioner John Mathis said he’d like to see all of the county’s polling places stay open, at least initially: “I don’t want to close any of them on this trial basis."

Accepting the recommendation, Nealy said the committee working on the overall plan will make its recommendations based on past voter turnout and a review of the polling locations.

“This is a good time for us to evaluate our polling places,” she said, “because we’ve made some changes.”

Introducing her committee members, including her staff members, political party and community representatives, Nealy noted election workers in particular will be a valuable resource in crafting the plans.

“They’re well aware of the confusion a voter may have about where they needed to go on Election Day,” she said. “They are on the frontlines. They know where the confusion is.”

With more tasks ahead, Nealy said she hopes the plans will be ready by June for either approval or adjustment by the commissioners court.

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