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Council under pressure to decide if Election Day is in May or November

Friday, August 26, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though major details remain unclear, City Council has been asked to pick an election day posthaste.


The Council must decide whether, in the fallout from passage of Senate Bill 100, they will hold 2012 elections in May, as by City Charter, or move to November. The decision is slated for the Sept. 22 agenda.


In a briefing to Council, attorney Sydney Falk of Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLP urged Council to stick to this timetable, as once the decision is made training, equipment, election partners, and other logistical details would remain to be worked out.


“I would suggest that there is another practical consideration, too. Besides machinery, it’s called people, people who might be anticipating running in May,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell.


Once City Council agrees on an election date, the city must obtain pre-clearance for the change from the US Department of Justice under the terms of the Voting Rights Act. The DOJ has 60 days to complete this consideration.


This effectively puts things on hold for an election that, were it to be held in May, is fast approaching.


“Fundraising window for a May 2012 election begins on November 1, and that packet preparation for that begins sometime in early October, probably October,” said Falk, who advised that a council decision best be made “sooner than later.”


“I think ‘as soon as possible’ would be a more appropriate statement, especially given the fact that other local jurisdictions, particularly ACC and AISD are kind of waiting with bated breath on our decisions,” said Leffingwell. “I really think it would be unfair to any potential candidates to do a May election and not have that window open by the earliest possible time.”


Adding to the time crunch, SB 100 itself has yet to obtain preclearance from the Department of Justice, though it is understood that process is underway.


Changing the election date would extend the terms of four City Council members six months. Though there is a provision in the SB 100 for this extension, Falk alluded to potential “legal risks” that would be discussed in an executive session.


“It is complicated, regardless of how clearly we try to answer it. Senate Bill 100 gives jurisdictions with May elections the opportunity to do a number of things, reportedly by resolution. One of which would be to change from a May to November day,” said Falk. “There is some discussion as to whether SB 100 means what it says.”


The presentation by Falk was mainly focused on the relative costs of the election options available in the wake of SB 100.


The November 2012 option emerged as the vastly cheaper option, assuming shared costs with Travis and Williamson County the total estimated costs were $1,050,000.


The option of holding the election in May was a little more complicated. Were the city to participate in a county-assisted election in May, the cost was estimated at about $2.1 million if it was not contested, and about $4.8 million with a contest. The difference in the estimate is due to a county procedure that requires voting equipment to be locked down in the event of a contest, necessitating a purchase of backup equipment to be used during the runoff.


Falk also provided estimated costs for a “pared down” May election of just 165 polling locations, as opposed to the usual 190. With Travis County assistance, this cost was estimated at $4.2 million.


Austin also has the option of holding an election in May without county assistance. Were this to occur, costs were estimated at about $6.8 million with assistance from HART election consultants, or $6.4 million without.


Falk explained that the slightly lower cost of the estimate for the city to run the election alone was likely misleading, as other costs (such as training and preparation) were not included in the estimate.


“Running an election is an extraordinarily complicated thing,” said Falk. “The process itself, and the running smoothly of the process itself, requires folks that have had experience running elections. So, it would be my personal remark that, of all of these options, deciding to run a city election yourself, you would do well to consider it will cost slightly more.“

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