DALLAS — For our early release episode of Y’all-itics, just days before the election, we talked with elections administrators across the state to check the climate in their counties, early voting turnout and whether they’re expecting election day to turn into a long night for all of us.
If there’s anything to know about elections in Bexar County, home to San Antonio, Jacquelyn Callanen would be the person to tell you about it. Callanen has been the Elections Administrator there for the last 17 years. And she’s been running elections for nearly three decades overall, so she’s seen it all.
Callanen says elections workers are “under attack,” a phrase she doesn’t use lightly. And she tells us they’re receiving threatening calls and letters 10 – 15 times a day.
“For the first time ever, I had to instruct my staff that when they have a very, very disrespectful person on the other end of the phone, when the person is just, I use the phrase out-of-control, I’ve told my staff to say I don’t deserve to be spoken to like this, I’m going to end the call. Now, never have I done that before. And that’s what we’re up against now,” Callanen said on Y’all-itics.
When we asked her what’s keeping her up a night, she said something that would become a familiar refrain as checked in with elections administrators across the state: wondering where the voters are.
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Callanen says voter registration is up 11.5% over the last few years, so she would expect to see more voters by now.
“We’re not seeing it. We just are not seeing it. We’re down about 20% from what we saw in 2018,” said Callanen.
Even the mail-in ballots are lagging behind. Callanen says they received around 40,000 applications for those ballots, but as of November 1, they’d only received 21,000 back.
And in terms of the numbers, Callanen says they will have 302 vote center available in Bexar County on election day, with some 1,500 workers trained for those centers.
Kristin Miles became the Elections Administrator for Bastrop County just outside Austin in September 2019, so this will be her first midterm. And she finds herself working in a different environment, a changed climate.
In this polarized world where elections workers are receiving threats, Miles told us they’re ready to send a de-escalation team to any location if it becomes necessary.
“We always tell them if they feel like they can handle the situation in the polling location without notifying our office, that they can do so. If they ever need to call on us for anything, we’re only a phone call away,” Miles said on Y’all-itics. “So, if there’s ever a voter that they can’t handle, they contact our office, and we can either speak to the voter over the phone or we can arrive on location to try to de-escalate those situations.”
Miles says so far, there hasn’t been a situation poll workers couldn’t handle and there’s been no need for a de-escalation team.
She also tells us she expects early voting results to be released shortly after 7:00pm on election night. And Miles says she doesn’t see any reason they won’t have the rest of the results released by 10:00pm.
Down in Hidalgo County, along the Texas-Mexico border, Elections Administrator Hilda Salinas says the workers inside her office haven’t received threats, instead telling us they’ve getting good support from the community.
But she did echo a familiar worry we’ve heard from other folks running elections, where are the voters?
Republicans have put on a full court press to win in south Texas and political experts joining Y’all-itics the past couple of weeks have told us the GOP has a legitimate shot to win some Congressional seats in south Texas and it could very well change national politics.
But Salinas tells us all of that extra attention has not translated to higher turnout during early voting.
“I have been comparing the numbers in voter turnout and we are a little low. We are lower than previous elections,” Salinas said on Y’all-itics. “In 2018, in around this time, we did have about, I want to say, 90,000, even more than that. And then 2020, it was pretty much, it was a little bit lower, but it was high compared to right now. At this point (as of 11/2), we do have 67,000 people that did show up to the polls and vote, vote early.”
In Collin County, north of Dallas, Bruce Sherbet is something of a north Texas legend. He’s been an elections administrator for more than 30-years, spending 25 in Dallas County, two in Ellis County and the last seven in Collin.
And he tells us that if he’s being honest, the job just isn’t as enjoyable as it’s been in years past.
“I haven’t personally received any threats or intimidation. But there are some very aggressive people out there that we deal with. I think the biggest challenge we’ve had in the last year or two is, we’ve had a bunch of open record requests,” Sherbet said on Y’all-itics. “There’s been a lot of tension that’s palatable. You can feel it more so than I ever remember in the past. So, the atmosphere is different. It’s more stressful. And our laws are completely changing, almost every session, with new laws layering on top of other laws. It’s a challenging position, more so than it was a decade, two decades, or three decades ago.”
Turnout in Collin County, however, appears to be on par with the past. Sherbet says he looked back at the previous five midterms before speaking with us and he says he didn’t find any surprises with current turnout.
On election day, Collin County will have a record 105 vote centers with 700 workers and 1,500 voting machines in the field.
Sherbet expects to finish counting the votes between midnight and 1:00am.
Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum joined us from NRG Stadium in Houston, home to the county’s central count location. Tatum tells us they built a “mini-city” inside the facility just for the election.
Harris County is using two machines to count votes from 782 different locations, the most precincts in the state. The equipment takes about a minute to read the data from each of those locations. So, it could take 6.5 hours minimum.
“We do have the latest equipment from the vendor. And we’re comfortable and confident that that equipment will tabulate properly,” Tatum said on Y’all-itics. “Part of our strategy is to ensure that we’re exercising quality control over the devices that are being read into the system. Once we see that we’re able to control those particular devices, then we may actually ramp up to a third reader so that we’re actually processing more results than two at a time.”
Tatum says his office has been running scenarios and situations trying to calculate how long the vote count could take. He says, fingers crossed, they’re looking at 1:00am, 1:30am, maybe 2:00am. But even finishing by then would be faster than projections.
But if that quality control standard is met, Harris County could easily deploy a third reader.
“The third machine is there. It’s just a matter of us being comfortable that the quality control is there. So, as the manager of central count is ensuring that the readers are doing what they’re supposed to do, as we’re seeing that it’s going as we planned for it to go, then we’ll likely lean into the third one and get results returned that much faster,” said Tatum.