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End of an era: DeBeauvoir ready for new challenges

Wednesday, January 5, 2022 by Jo Clifton

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, who has served as the county’s chief elections officer as well as the overseer of numerous county records, including deeds and marriage licenses, announced in November that she would not seek reelection. After nearly 36 years in the post, DeBeauvoir said it’s time to do something else. The Austin Monitor spoke with her about how elections have changed and what she has observed since she first started overseeing the process in Travis County.

“One of the little secrets about election administration is that most of us who are in this job fall into it,” she said. When DeBeauvoir first took office in 1987, there was no school for learning how to administer elections. Now there is, of course, and she has a certificate showing her training at Auburn University. She also has experience conducting elections for years and serving as an official observer for elections around the world. She notes that few people paid much attention to the way elections were conducted until 2000, the year the U.S. Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore, putting George W. Bush in the White House.

“And then suddenly the whole United States woke up,” DeBeauvoir said, and people began to realize that elections were not the simple matter they had appeared to be. People began to realize “that there were a whole bunch of laws and people working behind the scenes,” and “I do really credit that with the progress that we’ve made.” However, she added, “I think it will always be a fight to keep the ground that we’ve gained.”

DeBeauvoir had a fight of her own with Attorney General Ken Paxton after the November 2020 election, when he tried to have her indicted for obstructing a poll watcher. DeBeauvoir recently told the Statesman she spent $75,000 of her own money on attorneys to defend against Paxton’s unsuccessful attempt. The allegations followed DeBeauvoir’s efforts to protect election workers from close contact with anyone who might have Covid-19. The grand jury no-billed her, declining to pursue the charge, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has issued a ruling prohibiting Paxton from prosecuting elections law violations unless the local prosecutor requests it.

“The hardest part was I couldn’t fight back,” DeBeauvoir said, recalling the ordeal. “So what I had to do was trust the grand jury and my attorneys … and the grand jury saw the photos of the (poll) watchers inside with me. It was false to allege that they could not see or hear.”

DeBeauvoir, a staunch Democrat, told the Monitor she is very concerned about recently enacted restrictions on Texas voters, specifically Senate Bill 1, the elections bill approved by the Legislature last summer at the behest of Gov. Greg Abbott.

In addition to other restrictions placed on voters and those trying to help them, the bill initially criminalized the act of offering water to people waiting in line to vote. That part of the bill was removed before passage. “You treat a dog better than that,” DeBeauvoir said. “Voters don’t deserve that.”

DeBeauvoir announced her retirement early enough to give those who might be interested in the job time to think about filing. She said the job requires someone who loves public service, has strong administrative skills and is good at public relations. In addition, this job needs “somebody with a spine (who can) stand up when other people try to take advantage of voters.”

Two Democrats, Dyana Limon-Mercado and Kurt Lockhart, have filed to run in the Democratic primary. A lone Republican, Susan Haynes, has also filed for a spot on the ballot.

DeBeauvoir said she would ask Travis County commissioners to appoint her deputy, Adana Hess, as the interim county clerk to serve until the new clerk is elected. As a result of the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, whoever takes over the job will not only be overseeing elections for Travis County and the city of Austin, but assisting 142 other local jurisdictions in conducting their elections.

Looking back over her years at the helm of Travis County’s elections apparatus, DeBeauvoir described the four voting systems Texas has used during her time in office. Her first year, 1987, the state was using punch cards, “and I was pretty upset about what I saw behind the scenes. I really couldn’t believe that was how we counted ballots. So I immediately started working to get a different kind of voting system. And I didn’t know very much back then, I was very green, very new, but it took me three years to get Travis County to get an optical scan, hand-marked, central-count voting system.” The ballots were hand-marked because there was not another way to do it at that time.

The central count was the cheapest alternative for the county, so every ballot was counted in one place. The central count is a “planned bottleneck. We very quickly got too big to make that low-tech operation work for us, and as a result we commonly issued election results between midnight and 2 a.m.” No one was happy about that timing. She began working on the next voting system, and thanks to HAVA, Travis County was able to purchase a new electronic voting system. “It was perfect for people with disabilities. And the fact that we were all voting the same way I found very heartwarming.”

But then the electronic voting wars started, “and voters got pounded on the internet with how terrible and unreliable electronic voting was. It was so bad there was no countering it with a rational explanation … we had about 12 years of electronic voting, then we switched to electronic voting with a paper trail. That has been a really big help,” giving voters greater confidence in their ballots, DeBeauvoir said. “What you don’t want is a scribbled ballot. That’s just asking for mistakes.”

DeBeauvoir will not actually leave office until after the Jan. 25 election to fill the spot being vacated by Council Member Greg Casar, who is running for Congress in the Democratic primary, currently scheduled for March 1. Her 68th birthday is on Jan. 28, so, “If everything goes smoothly, that will be my planned departure date.”

While she’s not quite sure of all the things she wants to do in 2022 and beyond, she definitely wants to continue to volunteer as an elections observer. She’s also looking forward to spending more time with David Wahlberg, who as district judge declared the law preventing same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws banning gay marriage in 2015, DeBeauvoir’s office issued a record 310 marriage licenses in one day.

DeBeauvoir and Wahlberg enjoy sailing together and spending time with their two “fur babies,” a blue heeler and a Catahoula hound.

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