Kathy Van Wolfe

By Megan Willome

A conversation with McLennan County elections administrator

As long as there have been parades, there have been politicians who seized the opportunity to get out in front of potential voters. McLennan County elections administrator Kathy Van Wolfe has never wanted to be one of those people.

“I don’t want to be on top of the float, waving, but I like to be underneath the float, pushing it and making it work, all the mechanics of it,” she said.

Van Wolfe has served in this position since September 3, 1996. She will retire from her post November 30, after 24 years of making the mechanics of elections work.

She earned her Bachelor of Business Administration from Texas State University, back when it was still known as Southwest Texas State. She’d planned to inspect banks but then learned about another area that needed inspection: elections.

Currently she is ensuring voters have all the information they need for the November 3 election.

“Our website is mclennanvotes.com. October 5 is the last day to register to vote. The last day for a ballot by mail application to be received is October 23. Early voting is October 13-30. This year it’s three weeks of early voting, not two,” she said.

Wacoan writer Megan Willome spoke with Van Wolfe by phone to learn what precautions vote centers are taking during COVID-19, how absentee ballots actually work and how to serve the public in a nonpartisan manner.

WACOAN: You’re retiring after this election. Why now?

Van Wolfe: Yes, I’ve done 92 election cycles since I’ve been here. Not many people stay in the same place that long. I’ve enjoyed my time here. I came from Fort Bend County, southwest of Houston. I was the elections administrator there for five years. I guess elections are in my blood.

WACOAN: What attracted you to this field?

Van Wolfe: I went to college — when I went there it was Southwest Texas — and got a degree in business with a concentration in finance. My career at that point was headed towards banking, to be a bank inspector.

While I was in college, as a hobby, I had worked on different campaigns, handed out flyers, stuffed envelopes, walked door to door. I knew this was my hobby.

Then when this opportunity came up in Fort Bend County, I applied for it because that’s what I liked to do. I didn’t want to run for office. When this job [in McLennan County] came open, I came here to make a difference. The day after Labor Day when I started in 1996 it was a presidential election year, just like this year. I hit the ground running and haven’t stopped since.

WACOAN: What was the old system like when you got here?

Van Wolfe: In 1996 [the county] had a homegrown [information technology] department, a basic system. [The elections office] had to get in line with other county offices. We had lists printed out on green bar paper. We had one dot-matrix printer that shook when you had to print letters. We had a mainframe we worked from.

In 2000 we got a voter registration system and computers and printers and equipment we didn’t have in the past. Of course, with everything electronic, as soon as you buy it, it’s outdated because they’re always coming up with something new. We try to stay current so we can do a good job on registration and at voting sites as well.

We not only hold federal, state and county elections, but we contract with cities and schools to hold their elections as well. We even contract with the parties to hold primary elections. Democrats and Republicans can’t hold their own elections. The elections office is the only county department that can contract with another entity without the approval of the commissioners court.

WACOAN: What changes have you seen during your tenure?

Van Wolfe: In McLennan County we’ve seen lots of changes. When I got here the county was predominantly Democrat. Now it’s a complete switch; now most office-holders are Republican.

We’ve gone from paper ballots to electronic voting. The next voting system purchase in the next year or two will be a hybrid, probably a combination of paper and electronic ballots.

We also added a new voter registration system, Vote Texas, in 2000. All registered voters have to be registered 30 days prior to the election. This year that’s October 5.

In some smaller counties the county clerk does elections, then the tax assessor handles voter registration. In McLennan County, our office does both, so we’re never actually caught up. We deal with the mail as soon as mail comes in, but people are constantly moving.

We’ve gone from precinct-based voting locations in local neighborhoods to vote centers, which is similar to the way it works for early voting. You can vote at any of the locations. There are five early voting sites and 34 vote centers. We got countywide Election Day vote centers in 2014.

WACOAN: Why was the change to voting centers made?

Van Wolfe: It was convenience for voters. For those voters who leave to go to work before the polls open and then something comes up, or they have to stay late or pick up kids, or they have errands to run, it can be a hard time to get back to their home polls by 7 p.m. [closing time]. With vote centers, they can go out on their lunch hour or when they have a minute and vote on Election Day anywhere in the county. Voters have really liked that.

WACOAN: And what are the hours when the vote centers will be open?

Van Wolfe: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

WACOAN: You said there are three weeks of early voting this year instead of two. Why was that change made?

Van Wolfe: The governor made that change as a result of the pandemic. I think it’s a good change. It will give voters an additional week and weekend to come and vote. We hope voters will take advantage of early voting to cut down on Election Day lines. If they take advantage of early voting or vote by mail, then there will be fewer people in line on Election Day.

This year COVID postponed May elections to July, so we were working all summer. Normally it takes 60-90 days to prepare for an election and 30 days to come off an election. Quite a bit of organization goes into every election. I like to work ahead of time because something always falls in on us.

WACOAN: For voters who have not yet voted using the eSlate system, explain how it works.

Van Wolfe: A lot of people have used it. It’s not a touchscreen — it’s a select wheel. It’s from a company in Austin called Hart InterCivic. We’ve had eSlate since 2005.

[At the vote center,] you check in and are given an access code to take to the machine of your choice. You put that access code in, using the wheel to turn the numbers. Then you use that select wheel to turn to your choices. Once your choice is highlighted, you press enter.

We have a demonstration video on our website. We also have a system in our office that if someone wants to try out [the machine] before they vote, they can do that as well. They can test drive a sample machine.

We have our election workers who are there to help any voters as well. If you haven’t used the equipment, you can ask for assistance from our election workers or take someone in with you to assist you. We see that a lot with elderly voters, that they’ll bring a family member, or they may bring someone along because of a language issue, although all our ballots are in Spanish and English. They can bring their own interpreter, or we have a Spanish interpreter, a bilingual election clerk, at each polling place as well.

WACOAN: Election workers are important to elections. Have you lost some of your regulars since the pandemic started?

Van Wolfe: We have had some of our usual workers that have always worked that have health issues that couldn’t work in the July [election]. Some may come back for November. We certainly hope they can.

We rely on our senior citizens, especially during early voting. We couldn’t do it without them. We pay them, but they’re not working for the money but for the good of the cause. We will hire between 300-350 people for this election. We have a staff of five full-time people, including myself, and we couldn’t do it without all those who help us as well. We desperately need their help, their time and energy.

Here in McLennan County we’re lucky to have our senior citizens who are willing to give of their time, and all the people who give up a day of vacation. Each election cycle is different. The presidential election is our biggest, and we need a lot of help.

We also have student workers, if they’re 16 or older. It helps because the equipment is heavy to set up for some of our older workers. [Student workers] get to experience [Election Day] and see how it works. They have to have a permission slip that their parents sign and the principal of their school so they can miss that day of school.

When it comes to presidential elections, a lot of people want to work that election because they want to be a part of that. It’s exciting, and they know they’ll be busy. Some elections only have 5% of people vote, and it’s a long day if you just see a few people in to vote. For the presidential, maybe 60% of people vote. You get to see your neighbors and friends. And people like to say they worked that election and were part of it.

WACOAN: What did you learn from the July elections, the first held during the pandemic, that you can apply in November?

Van Wolfe: It was a trial run for us, using all our social distancing and personal protection equipment and cleaning and sanitizing of [voting] equipment. We offer each voter their own pen to sign in so you don’t have to share it. We offer a pencil so you can use the eraser end of the pencil to press the button on the equipment and turn the dial to select choices on the ballot. We encourage all voters to wear a mask, but we won’t turn anyone away. Election workers will have face masks and face shields as well.

WACOAN: I just learned that you offer curbside voting. What is it, and do you expect more people to use it in November?

Van Wolfe: That has been done for several years. It was designed for those who physically can’t come into the voting place. If you’re interested, call our office, tell us what you’re driving, and we’ll contact the polling place so we can be on the lookout for you. It works just like voting inside, but you do it in your car. You do have to be registered, and you have to have ID. Election workers will bring the machine out to the car for you. Every election we have some people who vote curbside. We think curbside voting will increase.

WACOAN: What can you tell me about voting by mail?

Van Wolfe: Ballot by mail will increase. Some of the people over 65 who would have voted in person will use the option to vote by mail. We’ve had about 8,100 apply for absentee ballots, and we will be sending out those ballots in mid-September. As soon as you get it, fill it out, and put it in the mail back to us.

But this year you can also bring the absentee ballot in to us [at the elections office]. If you’re afraid your ballot won’t get back here in time by mail, you can bring it to us. You can only bring your own ballot, and you have to have ID. We’re in the basement of the [McLennan County] Records Building, [214 North Fourth Street], where you get your car tags and pay your taxes. That is the main early voting site as well. The others are the Robinson Community Center, First Assembly of God Church, Waco Multi-Purpose Community Center, Hewitt City Hall/Library. All that information is on our website, [mclennanvotes.com] along with the 34 vote center sites on Election Day.

You can sample ballots at our office. You can also bring a sample ballot in with you if you want to use it as a form to help you vote, to assist you.

WACOAN: You’ve said that fear of contracting COVID-19, even if someone has an underlying medical condition, does not qualify them to vote absentee. Is that correct?

Van Wolfe: There have not been any changes made to that law. It would require the governor to make changes. We’re gonna go with the Texas Election Code, that says the reason for being able to vote by mail is a physical disability, not a fear of contracting COVID-19.

WACOAN: What are other ways to qualify for an absentee ballot?

Van Wolfe: You have to be 65 years or older, or disabled, or if you plan to be out of the county during all of early voting and Election Day — and you must give an out-of-county address. People can apply once a year, each calendar year, for an annual application for ballot by mail. We’ll send you a ballot for all the elections that calendar year, including a primary runoff ballot, if that happens. That way you don’t have to reapply between elections in a calendar year if you’ve been approved.

WACOAN: That starts over every year?

Van Wolfe: It opens on January 1 of each year and is good for the calendar year.

A lot of students use that. If they’re registered back home and they want to vote for local candidates, they’ll apply for ballot by mail. If they’re going to school at Baylor, they’ll use Baylor as their resident address but use their Harris County address for their permanent address, back home in Houston. Or maybe they’re from Waco but at school in Dallas or Houston or somewhere else, and they’d have their Waco ballot sent there. Students can also reregister here in McLennan County, and when they graduate and move they can reregister in that county.

For ballot by mail, we have people who come in and help us prepare for that mail-out. Sometimes when those same people work early voting, they see voters bring in those mail-in ballots: Please, put it in the mail!

WACOAN: Are there any changes for this election that voters need to know about?

Van Wolfe: Something that is different this time is we no longer have the straight party option. You will have to vote each contest all the way down the ballot. Both parties were using [straight party] quite a bit. Be patient. You’ll get to vote, but it will take voters a little more time. It’s a two-sided legal-size paper ballot [for absentee voting], so on the machine it’s several different pages.

There are 17 different cities and schools contracting with us as well [for the November election]. Their issues are at the top of the ballot, so that will be the first thing you see. If your school district is having an election, you’ll see that issue first, then you’ll scroll down through the county ballot.

We did it like that because in the past people might come to vote for president and not realize their city or school was having an election too. Then after they cast their ballot they’d want to vote for a friend running for city council, but they didn’t read down that far. We put local issues at the top, so they don’t get lost at the bottom of the ballot.

It’s important to review your ballot because once you hit Cast Ballot you can’t revote.

WACOAN: In recent years some people have wanted to monitor elections on Election Day. What have you seen in McLennan County?

Van Wolfe: The 2000 presidential election in Florida brought in the 2-D cameras with the hanging chads and brought the whole world wanting to view elections more than in the past. Nobody realizes the work that goes into an election. Oftentimes we’re asked, ‘What do you do the rest of the year, when the election is over?’ It’s not like we just set ballots on the curbside on Election Day and then we’re ready.

We have about 145,000 registered voters in the county. With each election, people are concerned about what happens and how it happens.

The general population doesn’t realize how much goes into working an election and making sure all the I’s are dotted and T’s crossed and ready for them on Election Day. We have lots of checks and balances and lots of details, in terms of planning, organization, manpower, delivering supplies, delivering equipment.

The staff takes the equipment out and picks it up. They set up and tear down early voting sites. They send out correspondence to election workers. We train all of our workers. We bring in help where we can.

We tell anyone that feels like they want to see the process, we encourage them to work as election workers.

WACOAN: How does someone become an election worker?

Van Wolfe: Information is at our website, [mclennanvotes.com]. We have also reached out to groups, to colleges, high school principals and community groups in the county to get additional workers. We’ve put together a list of student workers and other election workers. We’ll be giving that to the election judges who will hire clerks to work for them on Election Day.

[Editor’s note: Those interested in serving as election workers can contact the Democratic party chair, the Republican party chair or the McLennan County Elections Office.]

Both party chairs provide those lists of workers for us, and some people will sign up to work but then won’t be able to on Election Day, so if we have people that need to be replaced we work with the party chairs to make sure we have both Democrat and Republican workers in all of our polling places.

WACOAN: So it’s as fair as possible.

Van Wolfe: Right.

WACOAN: What are common issues people have when they show up to vote?

Van Wolfe: A lot of people choose to vote for president but not any other offices, so maybe they’ve moved in between presidential election cycles and didn’t realize their voter registration didn’t move with them. Each time a person changes counties they have to reregister.

If they move within the county, they can just update with a new address. A lot of people forget to do that.

Sometimes we have people show up [and they are not registered], saying, ‘It’s our God-given right to vote.’ But you still have to register 30 days prior to an election.

WACOAN: Where and how do you register?

Van Wolfe: You can pick up an application at any city hall, post office or library, or you can download it off our website or come into our office and get the form. You can’t register online, but if you’re already registered and just need to update your address, you can do that on the secretary of state website, votetexas.gov, for change of address.

WACOAN: What ID do voters need to bring to the polls?

Van Wolfe: Most people use their driver’s license, even before we had photo ID requirements. There are seven different forms of ID accepted, and those are available on our website. It does have to be a photo ID. If you can’t provide one and you can claim a reasonable impediment, then you may be able to use your utility bill or bank statement or voter registration card.

WACOAN: Do you need to bring your voter registration card?

Van Wolfe: You don’t need to have your registration card. We send it out because the law says we must let you know we received your registration, and that’s how we do it. We do send out renewal registrations because you’ll notice it says it expires at the end of the year, every two years. If you’ve moved, that card will come back to us because we need to keep your address updated.

If you need to change your address [within the county] you can take your old registration card, turn it over on the back, sign it and mail it to us. Or you can change it online or do a change at our office. You can even update your address when you vote. But it does need to be done because what happens is if you never update your address, after two federal election cycles of not updating your address, your voter registration will be canceled. Then at that point you’d have to reregister.

We have statewide voter registration in Texas. So if you move to another county and register there, we’re notified, so your registration gets canceled here. You can also register at a Department of Public Safety office when you update your driver’s license. A lot of times people do that more often than they vote.

WACOAN: In the news stories about your retirement, you’ve received praise from both Republicans and Democrats. How do you think you’ve earned that?

Van Wolfe: To do this job you have to be fair, not choose sides, make sure you have an efficient and effective office. The issue is I can’t be friends with any of our elected officials because eventually they’ll be on the ballot. I want to make sure I maintain a professional relationship with them, and that the general population feels that.

At one point, President George W. Bush was a registered voter and voted in McLennan County, in our little Crawford fire station. So whether you’re the president or a homeless person, you get the same treatment from this office. I try to be fair and make sure everyone gets the same treatment. That’s our job here, to be nonpartisan, not take sides.

Many days and hours are spent working on preparing and cleaning up for each election cycle. The people who perform these tasks are mindful of the importance of their jobs and the care and consideration that is needed to perform their job. No matter who or what the issues are on the ballot or your personal opinion, you must remain neutral and impartial. You must do the job in a professional, consistent manner for the good of the McLennan County citizens who you are serving and the right choices must be made in every circumstance.

WACOAN: You mentioned a homeless person voting. Can a homeless person register to vote if they don’t have a home address?

Van Wolfe: Yes, we do have homeless people who register, and they use the address of a shelter as their residence address.

WACOAN: Any final thoughts for the people of McLennan County?

Van Wolfe: I want to thank all the people that have supported me and worked with me in the past. With each election cycle we’ve added new people. I couldn’t do it without them. I’ve been fortunate that the community has been supportive, and I appreciate the opportunity I’ve had. I came to make a difference, and I hope I’ve done that.

2020 Election Information for McLennan County

Deadline to register to vote: October 5
Deadline to apply for a ballot by mail: October 23
Requirements to vote by mail:
— Voter is 65 years of age or older on Election Day
— Voter is disabled
— Voter will be absent from McLennan County during early voting and Election Day; voter must provide an out-of-county mailing address for the ballot.
— Voter is confined in jail but eligible to vote.
Curbside voting:
Available for those physically unable to enter the polling site without personal assistance or likelihood of injury.
Also available for those with signs or symptoms of COVID-19.
To vote curbside, call 254/757-5043, or send someone to alert the election judge of your presence.
Early voting dates: October 13 – October 30
Early voting locations:
– McLennan County Records Building | 214 North Fourth Street, Suite 300
– Waco Multi-Purpose Community | Center (1020 Elm Street
– First Assembly of God Church | (6701 Bosque Boulevard
– Hewitt City Hall/Library | 200 Patriot Court, Hewitt
– Robinson Community Center | 106 West Lyndale Avenue, Robinson

Election Day: November 3
Polls are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Vote centers:
Registered voters in McLennan County may vote at any vote center in the county, regardless of their home address. To view a list of vote centers, visit mclennanvotes.com.
A voter registration card is not required when voting; however, you must present a photo ID. (For exceptions to the photo ID rule, visit mclennanvotes.com.)