With lines extending up to two blocks and no parking in sight, the opening day of Rusk County’s early voting appeared to be a bigger mouthful than the City’s election office could manage, creating concern for some voters. The apparent frenzy to vote and its impact on the downtown area called into question the decision to use only one polling station for early voting.
Explaining the Commissioners Court decision to utilize the space and alternately keeping the doors closed on additional locations, Elections Coordinator, Kaitlin Smith, pointed out that in the last legislative session HB 1888 was passed, which requires all Branch Early Voting locations to remain open during the same weekdays as the main Early Voting location, for at least 8 hours each day. “This would have resulted in Rusk County servicing 5 locations for two weeks and would have been impossible to staff,” said Smith, pointing out the shortage of polling station volunteers.
The decision was not made lightly and was discussed over an extended period before finally being passed in late 2019 or early 2020.
In an effort to reduce wait times for in-office voting, the Elections office implemented curbside voting for Rusk County citizens “physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health,” per Texas Election Code 64.009(a). To utilize this process voters only need to pull into the parking spaces marked with orange traffic cones and signage stating Curbside Parking and dial the number provided. A member of the polling station staff will come directly to the voter’s car and assist.
With growing concerns nationwide over mail-in voting and voter queries about receiving incorrect ballots in previous elections, Smith took a moment to explain, in detail the mail-in voting process.
“I can only speak for Rusk County and our processes (as I know there is a lot of negative press currently surrounding mail ballots),” said Smith, “but I am extremely confident in our mail ballot process.”
While the process is simple enough for voters, there’s a lot happening behind the scenes to ensure the ballots are received in a timely manner, secured upon arrival at the Elections office and that the vote is legitimate.
To utilize the mail-in voting process, a voter first fills out an Application for Ballot By Mail and returns it to the office. This application remains on file and for later reference. These applications are processed the same day they are received and the requested ballot is mailed.
Once the voters receive and mark their ballot, it is placed inside a white Secrecy Envelope which is then placed inside the Carrier Envelope. The voter then signs over the seal to ensure the seal hasn’t been tampered with after it leaves the voter’s possession.
After the Elections office receives the signed Carrier Envelope is it marked in the system as “received” to ensure that person could not cast a ballot in person at a polling location. The ballots are filed in our locked ballot cabinets along with the voters’ application where they stay until it is time for the Ballot Review Board to convene.
The Ballot Review Board, comprised of six members and one presiding Judge, of an equal mix of Republican and Democratic party members, meets once the Early Voting period has ended.
The board compares the signatures on the voter’s application and ballot envelope to determine if the signatures could have been made by the same person. Decisions must be unanimous, but if there is a concern, the Presiding Judge may ask the Elections office staff to pull other documents from a voter’s file to compare between several signatures. The Presiding Judge usually asks for multiple documents if it’s apparent the voter may have experienced health complications which impacted their writing abilities. If the board is unable to agree, the Presiding Judge makes the final decision.
If the board rejected a ballot for any reason, such as the voter failing to sign the envelope, or if the signatures were decided to have been made by different people, they prepare a letter to be mailed to the voter notifying them that their ballot was rejected, including the reason why it was not counted.
Once all signatures have been compared, the ballots are opened and stored in the locked ballot cabinets until Election Day, when they are counted and tabulated.
“During November elections we contract with the political subdivisions so all local items are listed on the ballot. If someone lives within city limits and that city is holding an election with us, they will receive a ballot with Federal, State, County, and Local (cities/schools/special districts) automatically,” said Smith, addressing claims made by area voters regarding being mailed incorrect ballots for their area, “Our data is coded based on maps provided by that individual political subdivision, so if a voter ever receives a ballot they believe is incorrect, or missing an item, they should let a poll worker know before casting the ballot. Usually, we can research their address and if there truly is a discrepancy, they would receive a corrected ballot. This is rare, but could happen.”
For residents interested in being a paid volunteer Poll worker you can contact the Rusk County Elections Office at 903-657-0321 to receive the form necessary to be considered. The ongoing election is fully staffed but the office accepts applications year-round.