Travis County prepares for election season with drive-in ballot submission, other COVID-19 accommodations

A phto of a pile of "vote 2020" buttons
A top public health official said Travis County residents over age 65 should consider mail-in voting. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

A top public health official said Travis County residents over age 65 should consider mail-in voting. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Travis County voters submitting mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 national election may have the option to return them in a drive-thru line. The measure is part of a push by the county clerk’s staff to prepare for expanded use of mail-in ballots due to coronavirus-related caution, coupled with expected record turnout and potential voter concern regarding the U.S. Postal Service.

At an Aug. 26 Travis County Commissioners Court meeting, County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said voters should plan ahead in anticipation of complications as an estimated 100 million Americans request mail-in ballots.

“We are not giving up any opportunity or any emphasis on either in-person voting or by mail [voting],” DeBeauvoir said. “I realize the political circumstances have frightened voters. They don’t really want to go inside to vote, and they’ve also been frightened that they can’t trust the post office.”

U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has provided testimony to Congress over multiple days, starting Aug. 21, regarding his handling of the post office after implementing cuts.

On Aug. 21, the U.S. Postal Service tweeted, "the American public should know that delivering America's election mail is our number one priority between now and Election Day."

In order to expand the county’s mail-in voting capacity, DeBeauvoir said she and staff are working on other options to return ballots aside from mail, including three downtown drive-thru return hubs: one on each side of the 700 Lavaca Street parking garage and another at Old University Savings building, located at 1010 Lavaca St., Austin. This option would expand on an existing choice to hand-deliver ballots to a business office of the county clerk.

Having already received 4,000 mail-in ballot requests, DeBeauvoir said she projects that requests will total 100,000 by the Oct. 23 deadline. Around 123,000 voters over age 65 will be eligible for ballot by mail, she said.

At an Aug. 27 press conference, Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott emphasized that voters over 65 should exercise their right to a mail-in ballot to ward off the risk of coronavirus transmission at the polls, as should other high-risk voters.

While current projections from the University of Texas’ Lauren Ancel Meyers Lab suggest that Travis County could recede to Stage 2 risk by late September, Escott said high-risk individuals should still be cautious when making plans to vote and should request a ballot ahead of time if possible.

“Right now, we’re not sure what Nov. 3 is going to look like,” Escott said. “We are working very hard with the Travis County Clerk's Office to ensure that polling places are as safe as possible.”

Many of the polling place precautions planned by the clerk’s office include measures already taken during local July elections, such as clear barriers set up between poll workers and voters; finger cots to wear for touchscreen signatures and voting; social distancing enforcement; and the provision of hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment.

Additionally, the clerk is seeking several larger facilities to use as socially-distanced Election Day poll locations, since locations that previously served as vote centers, such as Fiesta and Randall’s supermarkets, will not be used this year. Residents could vote at area schools this summer when the academic year was not in session, but DeBeauvoir said that may not be an option this fall once students have returned to the classroom.

Early voting will also be expanded from 20 to 35 locations following record early voting turnout in July.
By Olivia Aldridge

Reporter, Central Austin

Olivia joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in March 2019. She covers public health, business, development and Travis County government. A graduate of Presbyterian College in South Carolina, Olivia worked as a reporter and producer for South Carolina Public Radio before moving to Texas. Her work has appeared on NPR and in the New York Times.