By Katy Owens Hubler
It was a cool morning in Austin, Tex., when a group of legislators, staffers, two NCSL staffers and state officials met at the state capitol last week for a “field trip” to see how elections are run in a small Texas county.
On the hour-long bus ride we exchanged stories, cookies and thoughts on the newly released "Report and Recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration." It was a group of people that probably don’t typically get to meet and exchange ideas on a topic about which we are all passionate: elections. Our field trip was to Burnet, Texas, a town of barely 6,000 residents an hour's drive from Austin that was named for the first president of the Republic of Texas. The goal was to see how an excellent election administrator, with a staff of just two others, puts on fair, secure and accurate elections year after year.
Representatives Geanie Morrison and Stephanie Klick, the chair and a member, respectively, of the House Committee on Elections, were along for the ride, along with staff members of several other Texas state representatives and senators, and three staff from the nonpartisan Texas Legislative Council. Our group also included several representatives of the secretary of state’s office, the state elections director, Keith Ingram, and Merle King, the executive director of the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University, as we rolled through the Texas countryside.
Upon arriving in Burnet, election administrator Barb Agnew took us through every step of the election process, from preparing ballots to setting up the voting machines to the flow of voters at a polling place. Participants appreciated getting a “behind the scenes” look at how elections are run, and seeing how legislation approved in Austin affected an administrator with 26,000 voters in her jurisdiction. Several people commented that they never realized how complicated it is to run a successful election.
In a small county like Burnet, Barb and her team wear many different hats as they operate from their three-room office/warehouse.: election statute interpreters, ballot designers, IT trouble-shooters, warehouse technicians and poll worker trainers.
The field trip to Burnet set the stage for an afternoon discussion of current election statutes in Texas and what may be on the horizon for the next legislative session. Several other local elections administrators joined us for the roundtable discussion, and the new secretary of state Nandita Berry also stopped by to say hello.
The Texas trip was the first of six state visits that NCSL’s elections team will be conducting this year to connect legislators and legislative experts on election policy with local elections administrators.
Katy Owens Hubler is an elections policy specialist for NCSL.