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Elfant says city must finalize new Council districts by August 1

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 by Michael Kanin

The man in charge of voter registration for Travis County says that the yet-to-be-formed 10-1 districting commission must have new Austin City Council districts approved by the U.S. Department of Justice and submitted to his office no later than August 1 in order for voters to receive registration certificates with their new precincts on them.


In a letter addressed to at least one Council Member, Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant writes that his office is “statutorily required” to “begin mailing” 2014-2015 voter registration certificates by Nov. 5, 2013. In order to meet that deadline, he continues, “My office will need to receive the boundary line data approved by the Justice Department no later than Aug. 1, 2013.”


Elfant told In Fact Daily via email that a lack of districted registration forms would not necessarily sink an election. However, it is unclear how the city would compensate for the missing data.


“I don’t believe that not having the City district information on the (voter registration) cards would preclude the City from conducting their next election under the new district lines,” he said, “but the City would have to find other ways to let people know which council district they live in.”


Elfant’s deadline could be a tough one to meet. According to a compromise schedule agreed to by Austinites for Geographic Representation – the organization behind the successful 10-1 ballot question – and the Office of City Auditor Ken Mory, the new committee won’t even be formed until sometime after May 22.


The 14-member districting commission is a mandated portion of the voter-approved charter amendment. A panel of three CPAs, who have an initial pool of more than 400 qualified commission candidates, will select 60 finalists for the committee. The first eight commissioners will be selected from the secondary pool in a random drawing conducted by Mory’s office.  


May 22 is the date that the initial eight members of the commission are chosen. According to the charter amendment, those eight commissioners will select the remaining six members of the body. There is no set timetable for that process.


Nor is there a fixed schedule for the commission to then go about its work. However, the charter amendment does specify in detail steps that appear to be part of a lengthy process.


According to charter mandates, commissioners must hold at least eight public meetings before they settle on a preliminary plan. After that they must hold an additional four public meetings.


Once they have a final plan ready, commissioners must hold an additional two public hearings, and allow for five days of written public comments before the lines are finalized. As Elfant indicates, the new districts must also gain approval from the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act – at least for now (the U.S. Supreme Court could overturn portions of the Voting Rights Act this summer).


All of that will come after what is sure to be a difficult, contentious, process to create the new districts. With no history of geographic representation to rely on – and plenty in the way of sensitive issues that will inform their efforts – districting commissioners are sure to need more than two months to do their work and have it approved by the Justice Department.


Nonetheless, Elfant argues in his letter that the timeline is a hard one. “(It) allows my staff to redesign the (voter registration) certificate for the single member district field and more importantly, to load and audit the boundary line data and (for) your GIS staff to verify and approve the single member districts lines,” Elfant writes in his letter.


He reiterated that point in his email to IFD. “We are required to send out the new voter registration cards by December 5,” he wrote. “Because of all that has to be done to input, verify and print the data in order to meet that deadline, the district boundaries would have to be completed (and approved by (Justice)) by early August in order for us to be able to include the council district numbers on the new voter registration cards.”



“While the headline regarding our ability to include city districts on the new voter registration cards is factual, that headline by itself (which is what I received in my e-mail) suggests so much more than what was intended,” he said via email. “Given the number of calls and e-mails I have received so far, I really want to make it clear that the state mandated deadline for inclusion of district information on voter registration cards should in no way jeopardize the Austin City Council elections set for November of 2014. My office stands ready to assist the City in any way we are able to help inform Austin voters what districts they will be in.”


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