Tuesday’s meeting of the Erath County Commissioners Court kicked off with a public hearing regarding the participation in a pilot program for countywide election precincts. The hearing was held to give citizens an opportunity to ask questions and voice concerns over the voting location change, which according to Erath County Clerk Gwinda Jones, will offer many advantages over the current precinct divided system.

After a brief discussion, with no opposition from county officials or audience members, the court voted to approve participation in the program.

Jones explained the countywide system will establish 11 polling places throughout the county that will allow all registered voters to cast ballots at any of the locations on Election Day. The current system, with its 20 polling places, requires voters to vote at locations specific to their precinct and is often times inconvenient for those who may live and work on different sides of the county.

By cutting the number of polling places by almost 50 percent, the reduction in voting locations will save taxpayer money. The new system, with its fewer election workers, will also require less time to set up and take down election locations. The county anticipates a significant cut in the cost of conducting elections.

To prepare for the program, county officials have devised a map for the location of the 11 polling places. The Erath County Courthouse, Embarq Telephone Office, Piggly Wiggly, TexasBank and United Cooperative Services will serve voters within Stephenville city limits. The Dublin County Annex, Lingleville School, Morgan Mill Community Center, Selden Community Center, Bluff Dale Volunteer Fire Department and Huckabay School will serve voters outside of the city.

Jones explained that the 11 polling places would not be utilized during early voting.

“Early voting will not change,” Jones said. “Early voting will still be held at the county courthouse and at the Dublin Annex. The program applies to Election Day turnout only.”

County Judge Tab Thompson agreed with Jones’ opinion that the change would likely prompt a larger turnout at the polls.

“This will allow us to provide readily available voting access to all Erath County residents,” Thompson said. “I think we will find this is a good opportunity for the county. It will provide greater opportunities for citizens to get out and vote.”

According to www.legis.state.tx.us, the Web site for the Texas legislature, the pilot program was created through HB 3105, which amends the Election Code to reestablish a program created in 2005 to allow participating commissioners courts to eliminate county election precincts.

The Web site further explains the secretary of state must operate the program as a pilot program until June 1, 2009 and file a report with the legislature that includes the secretary’s recommendations on the future use of countywide polling places and suggestions for permanent statutory authority regarding such polling places.

By participating in the program, the county could help in streamlining the voting process for all Texas counties.

For Erath County citizens, a chance to try out the new system should come with this year’s Nov. 4 election. Prior to Election Day, the county will test the system to allow time for any errors or inconsistencies to be resolved.

If the pilot program proves successful, Jones said she hopes the county will see the countywide polling places open for future elections.

“The difference would be during odd numbered years when constitutional amendment elections are held,” Jones said. “During those elections, we only have four election locations open so it would not be feasible to increase the number of polling places to 11.”

Jones said that if the system is adopted as a permanent means of conducting elections, she hopes the county can establish a rotating schedule between even and odd number years so voters can remain aware year after year where they will vote in any given election.

Also regarding the local voters, the commissioners granted permission for the office of Tax Assessor/Collector Jennifer Carey to go out for bids for new voter registration software.

“We have been using the state’s registration system since 2006 and are now ready for something better,” Carey said. “Now that we have made it through the primary and May elections, it would be a good time to improve on the current system.”

Carey explained there are funds allotted in the county’s current operating budget to fund the updating of the current voter registration system.