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Texas is one of very few states not expanding mail-in voting during the pandemic. And now, local election officials are scrambling to find new kinds of polling sites, enough of them to accommodate the challenges of coronavirus. Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin reports.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Caitlin Boehne voted during a primary runoff in Austin several weeks ago. Because she is under 65, she can't vote by mail. And while Boehne wasn't too happy about this, she voted early, and there were no lines. She says it went as well as it could during a pandemic.
CAITLIN BOEHNE: Yeah. I was, you know, very impressed. Everything was very spaced out, lots of hand sanitizer, protective equipment and stuff.
LOPEZ: Election officials in Texas hope to replicate this on a much bigger scale in November. Myrna Perez with the Brennan Center for Justice says even states that are expanding mail-in voting will have to make sure they have enough safe in-person locations for voters.
MYRNA PEREZ: Polling places are the way that many, many Americans will be voting on Election Day. There are some people for whom it is really the only realistic option.
LOPEZ: Perez says that includes people without reliable mail service, people with visual impairments or people who need language assistance. In Austin, County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir plans to have a couple hundred polling places. But so far, finding them has been a challenge.
DANA DEBEAUVOIR: Because a lot of the owners of the facilities we want won't give us an answer for sure one way or the other that we can or cannot use the facility.
LOPEZ: Some are completely off the table. Voting at grocery stores was super-popular in Austin because they were so convenient. But now, DeBeauvoir says, the pandemic has made grocery stores a terrible idea.
DEBEAUVOIR: And it was just too close, too crowded. It was never going to work.
LOPEZ: In the last election, DeBeauvoir says, she relied heavily on schools. But now that schools may be reopening at some point in the fall, it's up in the air. Chris Davis, the election administrator for Williamson County in central Texas, says another set of traditional polling places is also a bad idea.
CHRIS DAVIS: We're relatively certain we're going to take off the table nursing homes and assisted living facilities that we used and enjoyed - and the residents had enjoyed in the past - as electronic polling places.
LOPEZ: Davis says election officials are going to have to get creative. For example, Davis is looking for open-air options in an effort to keep the possible spread of the coronavirus down.
DAVIS: We're considering sites that we could have kind of a robust drive-through voting, say, a defunct or closed bank with several teller lanes, as well as perhaps parking garages, something that can give one-stop service.
LOPEZ: In Austin, Dana DeBeauvoir says she's looking at setting up polling stations and lobbies, hotel ballrooms and amenity centers at apartment complexes. But election officials also have to be mindful of how these polling sites are distributed, says Myrna Perez with the Brennan Center.
PEREZ: They need to make sure that there is enough polling places in the communities that need them, especially in communities that are underserved or have low rates of vote-by-mail usage.
LOPEZ: And if there aren't enough polling sites, there could be long lines. Ali Lozano with the Texas Civil Rights Project says the state already has about 750 fewer polling sites than it did a decade ago. Plus, voting during a pandemic is just going to take longer than it has in the past.
ALI LOZANO: And that's if people keep the same amount of polling locations. If we close even more and we have even less polling locations with these added steps, it's just a perfect storm for problems that is absolutely going to lead to longer lines if we do not substantively prepare now.
LOPEZ: Even though Texas won't have an expanded vote-by-mail program, state officials are giving voters more time to vote in person. The governor recently extended early voting from 12 to 18 days for the presidential election.
For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin.
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