In an effort to both slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and keep lines moving during the July 14 Texas primary runoff election, officials in Tarrant County are planning to make the experience contactless.
Heider Garcia, Elections Administrator for Tarrant County, said the idea to allow the voter to have as little contact with the equipment as possible.
Voters will be asked to wear masks when they vote either on July 14 or if they choose to vote early, according to Heider. Depending on the polling location, their hands will be sanitized via either spray or gel before handing over the appropriate ID.
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Poll workers will also have devices by their tables, which include a sponge covered with a sanitizing solution. The devices will be used to clean the stylus pens used by voters.
“This is what you’ll use to sign on the touchpad on the device to sign in. That’s what you’re going to use to choose everything on the voting machine,” Garcia said. “Every time someone uses it, they’re going to use their own sterilized device to interact so you don’t have to touch. That’s why we call it a contactless experience. You don’t have to touch the device, you don’t have to touch the machine to make a choice.”
Garcia said when they initially considered how voting machines could be placed six feet apart, they realized it would have reduced machines by 40-60% in some sites.
“What that translates immediately is a longer line,” Garcia said, explaining why they are opting for the ‘contactless’ option instead. “Considering this is an election in the middle of the summer, we don’t want people waiting outside. The longer they are, probably the higher the risk.”
Garcia added, the July primary runoff could be a ‘dry run’ for the November election. Adjustments may be needed, depending on how the process runs with health protocols in place.
"We have to see it in action and say maybe we adjust here or there," he said.
Dr. Kimi King is a professor of constitutional law and American government at the University of North Texas in Denton. Dr. King told NBC 5, primary elections generally do not prompt large turn-outs and primary run-offs are even smaller.
“However, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that right now, we’re in kind of a perfect storm in terms of all of the different things that are coming together across our country and around the globe,” Dr. King said. “So, it will indeed be interesting what happens in the July 14 runoff.”
King added, it’s hard to predict what turnout could look like statewide. Some people, for example, may not be comfortable being in public yet amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, she said.
“You may also see a highly energized younger population after what we’ve seen over the course of the last month with Black Lives Matter,” she told NBC 5. “I think the real reason why you want to watch the primary runoff in the next few weeks is it is going to give us an indication of what November is going to look like if we don’t have mail-in ballots.”
Garcia said the public also plays a role in ensuring the process goes as smoothly as possible. His advice in preparation includes grabbing a sample ballot and studying candidates ahead of time.
“The less time you are the polling place, the smaller the wait. The less exposed you are. In July, we’re talking about a line in 95, 100, 110 degrees out there. We don’t want you there,” he said. “If you take 10 seconds less to vote, if everyone in the line takes 10 seconds less…the person at the end of the line will wait 10, 20, 30 minutes less.”
Early voting begins Monday, June 29 and ends Friday, July 10 for the July 14 Texas primary runoff election. It also includes a city of Fort Worth election on crime district sales tax.
On Wednesday, Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs released a statement encouraging all eligible Texas voters to take advantage of the extended early voting period ahead of the July 14 elections, which begins on Monday, June 29 and ends on Friday, July 10.
"Despite COVID-19, the drumbeat of our democracy has marched on," Secretary Hughs said in a prepared statement. "I strongly encourage all eligible Texans to set aside time now so they can be prepared to cast a ballot during the early voting period or on Election Day. It is essential to our democracy that Texans are able to safely and confidently cast their vote."
Early voting will not occur on July 3 or 4th in observance of Independence Day.
*Map locations are approximate, central locations for the city and are not meant to indicate where actual infected people live.
**County totals below include all 32 North Texas counties, not just Collin, Dallas, Denton and Tarrant.