Friday, February 19, 2016 by Jo Clifton

County moves to correct shortened voting hours

Officials from Travis County and the city of Austin became aware shortly after early voting started this week that a failure to communicate meant that some voters have not been able to vote early in the morning or after work, as both city and county officials had intended.

That mistake meant that voters hoping to cast early ballots at the Austin Area Urban League; the Parque Zaragoza Recreation Center; or the Howson, Ruiz or Carver public libraries may have left in frustration after finding their voting location closed.

City Council members voted last October to direct that city-owned facilities operate during the same hours as other early voting locations. Council Member Pio Renteria told the Austin Monitor on Thursday that the city clerk did send a notice about keeping the voting locations open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but the county never got the information.

Renteria, who served as an election judge at Sanchez Elementary School for 20 years, said he is quite familiar with how the system works. “They must have instructed the election judge to come in at 10 (a.m.), because normally the way it works is you pick up your material that weekend before voting starts and your election judge is supposed to reach out to the site where everything is set to go. And somehow he must have been instructed that they weren’t going to open until 10. That’s the only way I can think of that it could have happened,” Renteria said.

“Someone just didn’t get the information,” Renteria said, adding that “the city clerk told me that she had someone there at 7 o’clock in the morning at Zaragoza (Recreation Center) waiting for someone to show up.”

Except for the Howson Public Library, all of the locations with shorter hours are located in East Austin, causing some area residents to complain of discrimination.

Travis County Democratic Party Chair Vincent Harding reached out to his Republican counterpart, James Dickey, and they both agreed that the hours should be extended for everyone, Harding said.

Harding sent out a press statement early Thursday that said in part, “Regardless of the miscommunication that took place, we need to make it easier for everyone to vote. There is no more time to waste. I am asking that our public servants do everything in their power so that the least amount of voting hours at these locations is lost.”

Later on Thursday, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt called a special meeting of the Commissioners Court for 3:30 p.m. Sunday to consider an order to standardize voting hours at all locations throughout Travis County. If all goes as planned, the locations that were closed this week will have extended hours beginning the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 24. They will stay open until 7 p.m. on Wednesday and be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, the final two days of early voting for the March 1 Democratic and Republican primaries.

State law prevents commissioners from ordering a change in hours before Wednesday evening.

City spokesman Bryce Bencivengo said if the commissioners vote to extend polling hours for the locations that are on city property, the city manager would make sure that the extended hours are enforced.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

East Austin: East Austin is the quadrant of Austin that, generally speaking, is east of IH-35.

Travis County Clerk: Dana DeBeauvoir.

Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.

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