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Travis County anticipates spending additional $3M for November elections

Wednesday, September 2, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

From social distancing restrictions to post office controversy, this year’s presidential election is facing unprecedented challenges. Despite the hurdles, Travis County has worked out a plan to ensure that the county’s 833,000 registered voters have access to safe and smoothly functioning voting options, both in person and through the mail.

According to budget figures from the county’s Planning and Budget Office presented to the Commissioners Court on Tuesday, executing the roster of planned voting strategies will cost $6.9 million. A normal presidential election year requires a $3.8 million investment from the county.

While the majority of this expense is already accounted for in the county budget, the Travis County Clerk’s Office is requesting an additional $660,000 that was not earmarked in the preliminary budget issued in July. Ninety-eight percent of the request stems from the attempt to provide a mail-in ballot option for all those who are interested and eligible. County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir estimated that the number of mail-in ballots for the November presidential election will reach 100,000. The number of requests has already surpassed previous records for presidential elections, she said.

“It is expensive,” DeBeauvoir acknowledged. Last week, she told the Commissioners Court she expected to spend a total of $2.4 million to implement additional programs to facilitate voter safety in November.

DeBeauvoir said that while this figure is a result of her efforts to protect the integrity of the election, she designed the programs to be as lean as possible while “trying to make up for the damage done,” referring to the budget cuts implemented at the U.S. Postal Service. She pointed to the Covid-19 pandemic as a source of worry for many voters looking for alternatives to going to the polls, as well as “the sabotage that was done to the post office” making a vote-by-mail alternative unappealing for many.

DeBeauvoir was referring to the U.S. postmaster general’s proposal to remove hundreds of mail-sorting machines across the country – 58 in Texas – and other pieces of postal infrastructure, including the blue mailboxes. Such cost-cutting measures at the federal level for the U.S. Postal Service have raised nationwide concern that the post office will not be able to deliver the anticipated avalanche of ballots for the November election in time for them to be counted in a timely fashion.

As an alternative to the traditional mail-in ballot, the County Clerk’s Office is proposing three drive-thru locations with up to 11 lines for voters to drive up, present their identification, sign a signature roster and hand over their ballot safely. The county plans to open these drive-thru drops beginning Oct. 1 and will operate them during business hours until Election Day.

The county will open the lower level of its Lavaca Street garage, the old University Savings building adjacent to the county clerk’s business office, and its tax office on Airport Boulevard for drive-thru ballot delivery.

This new drive-thru initiative prompted Commissioner Gerald Daugherty to propose the hypothetical situation of voter fraud as another potential source of worry for many residents. He said, “I’m not that Pollyanna enough to think that there aren’t things that go on in elections that really make people nervous.”

Documented cases of voter fraud are extremely rare in the U.S. Just before the 2016 presidential election, DeBeauvoir told CBS Austin, “In my 30 years of conducting elections in Travis County I have never seen a case of voter impersonation. Not one time. In the hundreds of thousands of voters who vote in elections in Travis County we have never seen it.”

DeBeauvoir stressed that voting by mail-in ballot, whether sent through the post office or handed to the county clerk in person, is a rigorous process that undergoes several checks to prevent fraud. She explained that once a mail-in ballot is requested, a file is opened for the voter and flags them, a signal that will alert those working at any of the county’s 35 early voting or 200 Election Day voting locations to stop someone before they are able to vote twice. If an individual surrenders their mail-in ballot, on-site staff will allow them to vote.

The commission did not vote on the matter; the county clerk’s request will appear at the budget markup meeting later this week. However, commissioners were in support of the request for supplemental dollars, with Commissioner Jeff Travillion saying, “Let’s make every effort that we can to give all those who want to participate the opportunity to do so.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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