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Council considers moving 2012 city elections from May to November

Friday, August 5, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Four members of the Austin City Council could be in office six months longer than voters had in mind when they elected them in 2009.


Council unanimously passed a resolution Thursday that directs the city manager to explore the costs and options of holding Council elections in November 2012 instead of the original May date in the wake of SB 100. If it is eventually approved, such a measure would have the affect of some Council members extending their own terms by half a year.


For her part, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir told Council members that she strongly supported a switch to a November election date.


“Trying to hold a May election right now, with the circumstances before you, in my opinion is extraordinarily difficult. Quite frankly, in my professional opinion, I do not know how you are going to accomplish it,” said DeBeauvoir. “I really believe you would be a better position if you would seriously consider conducting your municipal election with the November election.”


The Texas Legislature passed SB 100 earlier this year, pushing the date for potential federal primary runoffs to the fourth Tuesday in May. That has forced local election officials around the state to scramble to move elections to November.


Though Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said that she heard the recommendation loud and clear, she was hesitant to support it fully just yet, under the circumstances.


“I want to go ahead and just level with you that we have a lot of complicated facts that are making us have to think about May.” Cole noted that four of the seven Council Members will be up for reelection at that time, including herself, Council Members Mike Martinez, Bill Spelman, and Mayor Lee Leffingwell.


Voting to extend their terms six months may have political repercussions, but apparently it would be legal.


Asked for clarification on the matter by Mayor Lee Leffingwell, City Attorney Karen Kennard was clear that Council Members voting on their own extension would not be illegal.


“I don’t think there is any legal issue on that. I think that if Council made that decision, then Council Members could vote on that, that’s not a legal conflict under the state law,” said Kennard.


Within SB 100, there is a provision that allows for the “holdover of a member of a governing body… so that a term of office may be conformed to a new election date chosen.” 


DeBeauvoir provided a strong case for choosing a new election date.


“Unfortunately, your May calendar has been completely disrupted. You do not have a normal situation. That is thanks to a bill that was intended to be a good bill for our overseas and military voters. It did a very good thing for them, but it wreaked havoc on every city and school district in the state of Texas. You are not alone in having this issue before you. And it is, quite frankly, a daunting issue,” said DeBeauvoir.


DeBeauvoir presented the Council with a crowded calendar that showed what a May election would look like. She warned that mandatory security holds for the canvass and recount following the election could make those machines unavailable for runoff elections. It would require the purchase of duplicate machines.


In the case of a lawsuit, court order, or petition, voting machines could be frozen and unavailable for an indefinite period of time, further necessitating the need for additional voting machines.


The County Clerk provided a “conservative estimate” for what the elections might cost. In the best case scenario, were the city to share costs with ACC and AISD, a May election was estimated at $336,470 and the November election at $276,000.


DeBeauvoir expressed serious concern about the May time frame, which she said would be unforgiving to voters, who would have to vote in multiple elections at multiple polling places while facing new voter ID requirements and results of redistricting.


“This is exceptionally complicated. If it is exceptionally complicated for us to get a handle on the numbers and the timing, then imagine voters who have lives and families and jobs to take care of to try to confront this when they are trying to just go vote. It is more than we normally ask of our voters,” said DeBeauvoir.


“We are able to put everything on one Election Day, and one ballot, and they will be able to go to one set of polling places, unlike the multiple places in May.


With the election fast approaching, there is still a lot to sort out.


“The message to you is: there are a lot of unknowns here. We are off into a world that I’m finding difficult to predict. I don’t know what will happen to you, given different scenarios, but it’s starting to get more and more expensive and more and more unpredictable,” said DeBeauvoir.

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