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New law could cause major problems for Austin, Travis County elections

Thursday, June 2, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Senate Bill 100, passed by the Texas Legislature last week, could spell chaos for local elections. With the measure, elections officials across Texas would have to bring their calendars in line with a federal law that requires jurisdictions to mail ballots to overseas and military voters 45 days before a vote.

 

If Gov. Rick Perry signs or allows it to become law, SB 100 would bring sweeping changes to local polls. A spokesman for the Governor’s office said he is still considering what action he will take in regards to the bill.

 

Although the party primaries would still be the first Tuesday in March, the new date for Democratic and Republican runoff elections would be on the fourth Tuesday in May, making it impossible to keep May municipal elections in even-numbered years.  

 

“We’re still trying to ferret out all the details but as I understand it now, it seems highly unlikely that the city would have an election in May 2012,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

 

He added that “it seems to me that the responsible thing to do” is to extend the terms of four City Council members whose terms expire next May, to November, 2012. The four are Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, and Council Members Bill Spelman and Sheryl Cole.

 

That would mean a Mayor’s race, as well as three City Council races, at the same time as the presidential election.

 

The new law has a provision that would allow the Austin City Council, among others, to change their terms of office from the current three years to either two years or four years by passing a resolution rather than asking voters to approve changing the City Charter.

 

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir told In Fact Daily that she felt that there are many good things about the bill. Still, she expressed some concerns. “The main thing is that … what has been legislated is an untenable situation,” she said. “Everybody who does elections … we are worried about how do you do the impossible?”

 

Under the new rules, it could be difficult to figure out a way to wedge May municipal elections in with a potential 2012 May primary run-off, while allowing for 45 days worth of notice for military and overseas voters. DeBeauvoir says that she’s been told that the county would not have a problem if there weren’t a primary run-off.

 

“You would not know whether or not you had a primary until approximately 10 to 15 days before an election,” she said. 

 

The bill also allows city and school district officials to hold elections on their own, should county officials not be able to handle the juggling act. DeBeauvoir also sees problems with this possibility. “It would discontinue joint elections,” she said.

 

She suggests that this could result in multiple polling places on Election Day and a lack of centralization of election information. It would also force city and school district officials to make a major investment in election infrastructure. DeBeauvoir said that Travis County spent $6.1 million the last time they purchased election equipment about eight years ago. She adds that an estimate of $9 million “could be very reasonable” for each entity to cover that expense. 

 

Leffingwell said that he had not seen an estimate but that he thinks that such a purchase “would be millions.” 

 

County officials were previously concerned that because the new rules bumped election filing dates into the December before an election, they could trigger so-called resign to run provisions in the Texas state constitution (See Whispers, March 23, 2011). However, Travis Intergovernmental Relations Coordinator Deece Eckstein said that the bill solved those concerns by extending the length of time in that provision from 12 to 13 months. If adopted, that would allow candidates to announce their campaigns as early as a year and a month before an election.

 

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) sponsored the measure. Rep. Van Taylor (R-Plano) was the House co-sponsor.

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