Texas Tribune: Some local elections in Texas moving ahead despite coronavirus spread

Across most of Texas, cities, towns and school boards have canceled their traditional early May elections in response to the new coronavirus pandemic, temporarily shelving proposals for sales tax changes and city charter amendments and delaying contests for seats on city councils and school boards.

But a handful of towns and special districts still plan to go ahead with their May 2 votes, arranging polling places despite calls from the president on down directing people to stay at home to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.

“I continue to say the show must go on,” said Jeff Forrester, mayor pro tem and member of the Wylie City Council, which voted last week to keep its elections on schedule. “It’s important to protect the citizens—no doubt about it. That’s our first job. However, this is a constitutional requirement.”

After Gov. Greg Abbott paved the way for postponements two weeks ago with an emergency proclamation suspending parts of the state's election code, many cities and other local entities pushed their May elections to November.

But the governor’s proclamation did not apply to some special elections, which under the Texas Constitution must be held within 120 days after a vacancy occurs. Citing that constitutional mandate, Forrester and three other members of the Wylie council voted to keep a special election for a council seat that is being vacated, and go ahead with voting for a new mayor and two council members.

The city of nearly 50,000 people just northeast of Dallas will be going it alone after the Collin County elections administrator said he would lend the city some voting machines but will not run the election.

“It’s just too dangerous of a situation, I think, to try to conduct a May 2 election,” said Bruce Sherbet, the elections chief in Collin County. “In my 30 years of doing this, I’ve never refused to do the full services [of an election]. Under the circumstances, that was a decision that wasn’t hard for me to make.”

Elections in Texas are incredibly decentralized, and there is no comprehensive list of local contests, so it is impossible to know how many of the thousands of cities, school districts and other local entities have chosen to postpone elections and how many are moving ahead.

It appears, though, that the vast majority of the May contests have been scratched. Many county election officials like Sherbet have told cities they will not run elections in May. And in other Texas cities with planned special elections similar to Wylie's, city councils have voted to flout the 120-day constitutional requirement.

But Liberty Hill—a small Central Texas town of 1,218 residents in Williamson County—voted March 27 to keep its May election for mayor and City Council as well as a measure that could extend the length of council terms.

“I think about every one of the council members had a comment about this. They’re just wanting to get things completed and done," Liberty Hill Mayor Rick Hall told the The Independent after the vote. "With this election we’ve got several items on here; then we also have the charter item on in November, and their concern is the stuff on the local level will get lost in the big mix. They made the decision to just go ahead and do it as planned.”

Williamson County is not going to help with the election; its election administrator has been temporarily reassigned to operate the county’s coronavirus call center.

In other parts of the state, counties are on the hook to help with local elections because of agreements inked months ago.

Montgomery County election administrator Suzie Harvey said her office entered into contracts in December and January to run local elections. In a county with more than 590,000 residents, cities and school boards quickly postponed most elections after the governor’s proclamation, but Harvey is left to run elections for four small municipal utility districts.

“If it was anything larger than this, it would be impossible to manage,” Harvey said.

The four elections will have a tiny electorate. But the county is taking extreme precautions to avoid the risks of the new coronavirus, which has infected dozens of people in Montgomery County. Voting will only be conducted at the elections office with county employees working the polls after Harvey decided to not recruit from her regular pool of poll workers. Those employees will work behind a plexiglass window, and voters will be provided with gloves to check in and use the voting machines.

“All those risks, those are the reasons not to endanger anyone by holding elections,” she said.

In neighboring Grimes County, elections administrator Lucy Ybarra said the county has given one city and four school districts still moving forward with their elections until April 1 to “very seriously consider” pushing their elections back. At least one school district among the holdouts is trying for a bond.

“We’ve kind of been dancing with the devil, so to speak,” Ybarra said. “At this point, we’re thinking we’re getting close to the fire.”

For now, Ybarra is operating business as usual. On March 31, the county posted notice of the elections, in which more than 5,000 voters are eligible to participate, in the local newspaper. Ybarra is making plans to open the minimum required number of polling places, choosing sites that allow for social distancing, and will work with a smaller staff. Election workers will be wearing gloves and donning masks and will be expected to sanitize voting machines hourly.

There is no way of knowing what the state of restrictions on movement will be like come May 2, and early voting starts April 20. Abbott's statewide stay-at-home order issued March 31 limits outings to essential services and activities and runs until April 30.

Election workers are included under the government operations that can continue to run under Abbott’s order, Wylie City Manager Chris Holsted said.

But the city was still working to secure election judges March 31, Holsted said. It is possible Wylie will have to tap into a different pool of workers given how elderly the typical election workforce runs. The ability to fully and safely staff polling sites was among election administrators' top concerns before the May postponements were allowed.

Before the vote last week, the Wylie City Council considered it would run into that challenge given the higher risks faced by the older workers who typically run elections. One council member pondered the possibility the county would end up using high school seniors instead of senior citizens as election judges.

“Not if I was their parent, you wouldn’t be,” Mayor Eric Hogue said.

The Texas Tribune


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