During the 2016 general election, alumnus Zach Price said he waited three hours outside the Flawn Academic Center to vote.
“There were crazy long lines, which is an awesome show of enthusiasm, but students in particular have schedules that are less flexible,” Price said. “So making sure the lines move quickly is important.”
Price said based on the voter population of campus and West Campus, there should be seven to 11 polling locations in the area. For years, the FAC was the only one.
In January 2018, Price was president of TX Votes, a student organization dedicated to increasing electoral participation. At the time, he and other members consulted with the Travis County clerk to request a second polling location on campus.
Price formed a coalition of 100 student leaders, including the state representative for the area representing UT, the then-student body president and vice president to show student support for a second polling location.
“In multiple elections, the FAC had lines out the door, wrapping around the building,” said Maya Patel, UT alumna and then-TX Votes vice president. “It wasn’t just a one-off problem. It was a consistent problem.”
Travis County clerk spokesperson Victoria Hinojosa said the Elections Division at the county clerk’s office wanted to ensure a second voting location on campus would benefit students. Patel and Price then compiled voter engagement data to show UT’s early voter turnout is one of the highest in the nation and cited UT’s national award for most improved voter turnout in 2016.
Price said the final establishment of the polling location happened in September 2018 after approval from county clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, the UT administration and the Travis County Commissioners Court.
During the 2018 election and 2020 primaries, the Perry Castañeda Library was the second polling location. In response to COVID-19, Hinojosa said the Elections Division at the county clerk’s office worked with the president’s office at UT to move the second polling location to Gregory Gymnasium for the 2020 general election. The gym is larger, which allows for greater social distancing, and the line to wait is outside.
“We initially proposed a list of buildings we thought would be geographically accessible to all, like near parking garages, bus stops and in highly populated areas around campus,” Patel said. “Changing to (Gregory Gym) actually worked out perfectly because it’s not too far from the original location, but it allows for greater safety protocols.”
Price said different polling locations are more beneficial now because of the pandemic.
“Having more polling locations and shorter lines is risk management, so individual voters and poll workers are spending less time in an enclosed space together,” Price said.
Patel said according to a study by Bipartisan Policy Center, the ideal waiting time for a polling location line is 30 minutes or less to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to vote.
Mechanical engineering sophomore Val Dang said it took him 15 minutes to vote at Gregory Gym Thursday evening.
“It was really quick and easy,” Dang said. “I was expecting the line to be out the door because of early voting, but because they had two queues entering (Gregory Gym), it made the lines go by even faster.”
Price and Patel said they want to have a long term impact on voter participation and hope to see more polling locations on campus in the future.
“We need to break down the barriers that prevent citizens from participating to create a more equitable society, and that starts with voting,” Patel said. “Democracy only functions when everyone participates.”