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Candidates dissatisfied with polling places

Wednesday, December 5, 2018 by Jo Clifton

After all the excitement about Austinites’ heavy participation in the Nov. 6 election, there has been a huge drop in the number of voters participating in runoff elections.

News outlets across the state reported heavy turnout throughout the November election’s early voting period, beginning with the first day. Locally, 58.29 percent of Austin’s registered voters cast ballots for a total of 404,280 votes cast, according to Travis County records. Of those, about 78 percent cast their ballots early, with only 22 percent voting on election day.

But all of that has changed now. There is no race for mayor, and decisions have been made on bond propositions and the controversial, citizen-sponsored initiatives. For voters who don’t live in Districts 1, 3 and 8, there are still elections for one school district position and one Austin Community College seat. But those races don’t have the draw of the races for mayor and City Council.

Is that the only reason voters are staying away from the polls? Ed Espinoza, campaign manager for District 8 candidate Paige Ellis, put out a statement this week saying the “dramatic reduction in the number of polling places could be the contributing factor” in the drop-off among voters.

In order to decide how many early voting stations to provide, Travis County officials get together with officials from the entities involved, in this case Austin, AISD and ACC. For this runoff there are only 14 early vote stations and 20 mobile voting locations. Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said that the entities holding the elections made their decisions in light of the cost and the expected number of voters.

But voting did pick up a bit on Tuesday, with 1,996 mail ballots arriving and 1,397 votes cast in person, for a total of 3,393, the largest number of votes cast for the runoff so far. The cumulative total for Travis County now stands at slightly more than 10,000 ballots cast, or 1.51 percent of county voters. The Randalls on South MoPac had the highest number of votes cast so far, with 1,987, showing that District 8 voters are indeed interested. The second-highest number of votes in a specific location was 921 at the Randalls on Brodie and Slaughter – also in District 8.

Espinoza pointed out that in 2014, there were 18 early vote locations and 49 mobile locations.

Though Espinoza was the only one who put out a press statement, Ellis’ opponent, Frank Ward, was also disconcerted about the reduction in early voting locations for District 8. He told the Austin Monitor, “When you look at the fact there are 14 early voting stations and just two are in District 8, I think it reflects what many people in Southwest Austin think often – that we’re overlooked.”

However, Ward added, “I fully expect as we get closer to election day we’ll see a big uptick … Frankly, I think it’s just the nature of runoff elections a lot of voters are disengaged at this point.”

Those involved in campaigns for Districts 1 and 3 expressed similar feelings as Ward and Espinoza.

When asked whether the limited number of early voting locations was a problem, Lauren Hartnett, District 1 candidate Natasha Harper-Madison’s campaign manager, replied, “Absolutely.” She thought it was particularly problematic for people living east of Airport Boulevard, who have to drive a significant distance to cast their votes.

She mentioned the Carver Branch Library and Dan Ruiz Branch Library as being good places for District 1 voters to cast ballots. But she also complained that Districts 1 and 3 seem to be having the most trouble getting people out to vote.

Mariana Salazar, Harper-Madison’s opponent, told the Monitor she thought that 14 early voting locations was “absolutely” insufficient. She recommended voting at the Austin Area Urban League at 8011-A Cameron Road, Building A-100, and at the Carver Branch Library at 1161 Angelina St., because those locations will also host voters on election day.

Even though he voted to accept city and county recommendations on early voting locations, Council Member Pio Renteria was not happy with the outcome. Renteria’s campaign manager, Nic Solórzano, said his boss did not get a good look at the list of early voting locations until after the Council had approved them. He was especially concerned because the Flawn Academic Center at the University of Texas was only going to be open for two days at the beginning of early voting. Renteria got a lot of votes there during the early voting period for the Nov. 6 election, Solórzano said.

In addition, Solórzano said Renteria was concerned that the Fiesta Mart on Stassney, which saw a lot of voters on a daily basis ahead of the Nov. 6 election, was only a mobile voting location for the runoff, for just one day.

Renteria was particularly perturbed, Solórzano said, because his opponent, Susana Almanza, told Community Impact, “A lot of people who came out to vote for Beto (and supported Renteria) won’t be returning (to the polls),” she said. “So for us, it’s a plus.”

Almanza, who is Renteria’s sister, could not be reached for comment.

Visit the Travis County website for a list of all early voting and election day polling places.

Photo by Lars Plougmann from London, United Kingdom [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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