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Worrying about elections in the time of coronavirus

Wednesday, March 25, 2020 by Jo Clifton

While some people may be worrying about their health or their business, it is Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir’s job to worry about elections. One of her major worries is how she’s going to conduct the July 14 runoffs for the Democratic and Republican primaries. After that, she wonders if the coronavirus will still be around in November when Travis County and the rest of the nation are scheduled to vote on who will be president for the next four years, as well as many other important offices.

DeBeauvoir, along with election officials from 17 other states, wrote a letter to Congress Monday citing the unprecedented challenges they face this year in fulfilling their responsibilities. They asked Congress for a major financial commitment in the coronavirus stimulus package to help local officials ensure fair elections.

It was not clear Tuesday exactly how much Congress might decide to dedicate to elections, but to DeBeauvoir and others who signed the letter, the $140 million proposed in the bill “is simply not enough to give all local election officials the support needed to plan and pay for the changes that will be necessary for elections in light of how COVID-19 is creating new norms that cannot be ignored as we continue forward.”

The letter refers to a plan for protecting the 2020 election while also protecting voters from the coronavirus. The plan was written by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.

That plan, nationwide, could cost up to $2 billion. However, Chad Dunn, an attorney for the Texas Democratic Party, points out that the stimulus package is in the trillions of dollars.

Dunn told the Austin Monitor, “I don’t think we’re put to a choice of, can we afford to have a democracy. We have to have a democracy. It’s who we are as a people. We’re spending $2 trillion” on the stimulus package, and it would cost $2 billion for the whole country to vote by mail. “In the wealthiest economy in the world, we can come up with the money to have a democracy.”

However, DeBeauvoir told the Monitor that Texas is not ready for an election conducted entirely by mail. “Voting by mail is a lot more complicated than anybody would think. It’s not just a ballot magically arrives in your mailbox and then you vote on it and send it back within a time period.”

She said Texas is not contemplating the approach used by some other states that have systems in place to automatically send a ballot to every registered voter. Those states have had their systems in place for years, she noted. Texas does not have any of those processes or training programs set up now, but she and other elections administrators could use funding to set up such programs, she said.

“Now, even if our first time out we ran a program where voters had to ask for ballots … you need programming, and equipment,” as well as staff. “All of those things take money. They also take time to implement. Congress could be very helpful in giving local elections offices money to set those programs up. And that’s what I was more concerned about.”

DeBeauvoir pointed out that early voting for the July 14 runoffs and other elections that day will begin in June.

Larry Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center, said Tuesday, “There should be money,” from Congress or from the states. “There’s a very clear need. It’s needed now. You can’t just flip a switch. … It requires a huge infrastructure in terms of being able to provide ballots, count them, sort them, process them. It’s going to take time to build that infrastructure. We need the money now.”

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa and two Travis County voters filed suit against Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs as well as DeBeauvoir. The suit seeks a permanent injunction as well as declaratory judgment holding that a section of the Texas Election Code allows any eligible voter, regardless of age and physical condition, to request and receive a mail-in ballot “if they believe they should practice social distancing in order to hinder the known or unknown spread of a virus or disease.”

The suit would also require the state to accept and tabulate any mail-in ballot received from voters who believe that they need to practice social distancing because of a virus or disease. DeBeauvoir said she was glad that the party has filed suit. If the party wins that battle, it will mean a lot of work for her, but the current situation means that she will have a lot of work to do anyway.

Dunn said he expects a hearing on the suit to be held this week or next week.

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