Frustrated voters in Tarrant County want answers about why some polling places are so crowded there is not enough space for social distancing, once voters are inside the rooms where they complete their ballots.
An NBC 5 Investigation found most Tarrant County voting locations do not meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's election guidelines, which recommend spacing voting stations at least 6 feet apart. Instead, Tarrant County voters are often forced to stand close together while voting, at a time the county’s own health director is expressing alarm over rising COVID-19 cases in the local community.
“They’ve got the smallest voting place in there and you talk about COVID-19. That place is too small. Why would they set us up in here? That's wrong,” said Barbara Dixon, who voted in Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood, at a polling place located inside a county facility on Miller Avenue.
At Fort Worth's Southwest Regional Library, voters who kept a respectful distance outdoors told NBC 5 Investigates there was no room to space out once they were indoors, with the voting stations cramped together. In some cases voters described voting stations that touch each other, putting voters in close contact with several other people while voting.
Tarrant County would not allow NBC 5’s cameras inside to show the public what the crowded polling places look like and county officials declined to provide photos of the locations citing concerns about state laws limiting cameras in rooms where voting occurs.
“I honestly thought that there would be more spacing when we walked in. I mean, I am surprised,” voter Irma McAfee said.
Another voter, Joe Ohiagu, described the scene at the Southwest Regional Library saying, “Everybody is sitting on top of each other… it is very close. Once you get inside there is no social distancing”.
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The CDC’s election guidelines urge local officials to, "increase distance between voting booths to ensure that voters remain 6 feet apart."
In light of those guidelines, some Tarrant County voters wondered why that’s not happening at their local early voting sites.
“Well, I think that they're not following the guidelines,” voter Nancy Selleck said.
In an interview with NBC 5 Investigates, Tarrant County elections director Heider Garcia acknowledged most, if not all, Tarrant County polling places are simply too small to space voting stations 6 feet apart.
When asked why the county didn’t select locations that allowed for social distancing in the middle of a global health pandemic, Garcia responded, “We tried… we knocked on every door we could”.
Garcia said some churches and community centers were reluctant to open their doors to crowds during the pandemic, which limited the county's options. On top of that, the county added hundreds of additional voting stations to existing locations this year, hoping to shorten wait times, but making it impossible to follow the CDC’s spacing guidelines.
All at a time when the county health director recently warned COVID-19 cases are climbing at a concerning rate.
“One after the other, all of our indicators have started to go above their thresholds and start turning red,” Tarrant County Health Director Vinny Taneja said after he briefed county officials on the virus situation last week.
NBC 5 Investigates asked Garcia if his office informed the health department that voting stations would be placed right next to each other and directly across from each other, in some cases.
Garcia said the health department was in fact informed and that, “it’s not their decision”.
NBC 5 Investigates reached out to Taneja to ask if he was made aware CDC spacing guidelines were not being followed. A spokesman said Tanjea did not have time to respond to our questions.
Health experts are somewhat split on the degree of risk of COVID-19 at the polls. In Wisconsin, state health officials have said dozens of voters were sickened after a spring election and one study there found counties with more in-person voting saw spikes in COVID-19 cases following the election. But another study in Wisconsin’s largest county found no clear increase in COVID-19 cases after that election.
“I do think the risk is relatively low because people are spending such a small amount of time -- because time can play a definite factor in transmission,” UNT Health Science Center epidemiologist Diana Cervantes said.
Cervantes suggested voters come prepared to complete ballots quickly to limit time in crowded spaces and wear a mask.
Meanwhile, NBC 5 Investigates asked if Tarrant County would give voters a list of locations with more space for social distancing so people can choose a less crowded location or post signs warning that some locations offer little space.
“Let me look at it. I don't want to just say, 'yes' and then have to come back and tell you it turns out we can't or for whatever reason,” Garcia said.
Tarrant county officials told NBC 5 anyone who is concerned about a lack of space at the polls should vote curbside.
However, last week Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton warned elections officials statewide that the law does not allow anyone who wants to vote from the comfort of their car to use curbside voting.
Paxton said it is reserved for those who are sick, disabled or considered at serious risk inside a polling place.
NBC 5 Investigates checked with other local counties, asking if their polling places comply with the CDC guidelines.
Dallas County election officials have not responded to numerous requests for information.
The Denton County elections department said most if not all of its polling places do have space to keep voting stations separated by 6 feet.
Collin County’s elections director said his county has some locations where the stations are closer than 6 feet but not right up against each other like Tarrant County, where NBC 5 has received the most complaints.
*Map locations are approximate, central locations for the city and are not meant to indicate where actual infected people live.