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Travis County plans for drive-thru voting drop-off for mail-in ballots

Wednesday, August 26, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

November’s presidential election is fast approaching and the Travis County Clerk’s Office is working diligently to ensure county residents have safe and well-functioning access to voting, both in-person and by mail-in ballot.

To provide the required safety measures and necessary infrastructure to capture all the votes cast in Travis County, County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir told the Commissioners Court on Aug. 25 that she is estimating allocating an additional $500,000 to preparations for this election. The clerk’s office expects to spend a grand total of $2.4 million. Staffers will return next week to the Commissioners Court to provide an exact figure for the total expenses associated with election preparations for the November 2020 general election.

DeBeauvoir said there are 833,000 registered voters in Travis County and she expects voter turnout of between 60 and 70 percent. “This is going to be a very big and very busy election,” she told the Commissioners Court. A portion of this turnout will come in the form of mail-in voting, which DeBeauvoir told commissioners may account for up to 200,000 ballots. Currently, the clerk’s office has 40,000 requests for mail-in ballots.

Recent cost-cutting measures have raised nationwide concern that the U.S. Postal Service is not equipped to handle the flood of mail-in ballots anticipated in the November election.

In hopes of further alleviating the strain created by tens of thousands of additional pieces of mail, the clerk’s office has come up with what DeBeauvoir called “creative” solutions.

Texas law permits voters to hand-deliver their own ballots to the business office of the county clerk, according to DeBeauvoir. While she noted this option is limited, she explained that her office has worked to stretch the application of this legal entitlement. In addition to having the county clerk administrative offices on Airport Boulevard open for walk-up hand delivery, the county will open the lower level of its Lavaca Street garage and the old University Savings building adjacent to the county clerk’s business office for drive-thru ballot delivery. The County Attorney’s Office supported this interpretation of the law.

For residents who plan to vote in person, the county will enact stringent safety measures for voters and staff. Voters will be obliged to wear finger coverings when touching the voting machines and everyone will be required to wear a mask. “I hope I don’t have too many people who will flout the caretaking of others,” said DeBeauvoir, referring to individuals who refuse to wear a facial covering in public despite a countywide mandate to do so.

There will be six “mega-centers” for voting this fall, located at Austin Public Library’s Central Library, the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex, Pflugerville Rock Gym, Gregory Gymnasium on the University of Texas campus, Southpark Meadows, and Ben Hur Shrine Temple. In total, the county plans to have 35 early voting centers and 200 voting centers on Election Day on Nov. 3.

While DeBeauvoir said curbside voting remains an option, it’s designed to accommodate people with disabilities, and it is common for voting in this manner to take up to half an hour per person. “I have discouraged able-bodied voters from using it,” she said, noting that the image associated with curbside service is not applicable to elections. “The new definition of curbside never did and never will fit elections,” she said.

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that voting by mail eligibility in Texas could not be expanded to all voters in the primary runoff election, Travis County will work to accommodate the maximum number of voter requests. There is a separate request before the high court to consider this case for the November general election.

DeBeauvoir said that although citizens may request a ballot by mail until Oct. 23, “You don’t want to wait until that deadline.” She suggested requesting a ballot at least 14 days before Election Day and filling it out immediately and sending it back. “That will seriously help the post office,” she said.

DeBeauvoir said staffers are working to make sure the additional Covid-19 expenditures associated with this election are reimbursable through various relief funding sources.

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