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Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver told McLennan County elections officials Wednesday that a contract is a contract and the city intends to push ahead with its May 2 city elections despite calls from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to postpone elections statewide.
Deaver, other city leaders and representatives from the Waco and Midway school districts conducted an hourlong conference call with McLennan County Elections Administrator Kathy Van Wolfe and McLennan County Judge Scott Felton to discuss the upcoming elections.
Abbott has urged cities and schools to postpone their May 2 elections until the Nov. 3 general election as the nation and world leaders try to get a handle on the spreading coronavirus.
While none of the three entities formally have voted on whether to postpone the elections, Van Wolfe said she came away from the meeting with strong feelings that Waco, Waco ISD and Midway ISD, which have contracted with the county to conduct their elections, intend to hold them on May 2. The city of Gholson also has contracted with the county to hold its election.
Midway ISD board members will meet at 1 p.m. Thursday to discuss election plans. Board President Pete Rusek said he favors proceeding with the May 2 election.
Felton, who would not allow a Tribune-Herald reporter to listen to the conference call, declined comment about the meeting.
Van Wolfe sent notices last week to the nine cities and schools with which her office has contracted to handle the May 2 elections after Abbott made a proclamation allowing cities and schools to postpone their local elections. Van Wolfe asked them to let her know by Thursday if they intend to postpone. By Tuesday, the cities of Bellmead, Hewitt, Mart and McGregor and Crawford ISD had postponed their elections.
Valley Mills ISD and Connally ISD, which are leasing equipment from the county, also are postponing their elections.
Van Wolfe’s belief that the elections should be postponed was so strong that she told the entities her office would not conduct their elections if they chose to move forward in May.
However, Deaver, an attorney, made it clear in the call Wednesday that the city called the election, the city council approved the date and the city and county have a contract for the county to run the election, Van Wolfe said.
Deaver has been in contact in recent days with Waco ISD and Midway ISD officials and said he feels confident city and school officials can find spacious school gyms and cafeterias and large rooms in the Waco Convention Center and other locations to accomplish proper social distancing and conduct the elections safely.
“We understand that Kathy has some concerns that are valid concerns,” Deaver said. “We just feel like we can provide ways to mitigate those concerns and get the elections held and carried out in a safe and fair manner.”
Van Wolfe, citing the governor’s suggestion that the elections be postponed, expressed concerns that elderly election workers, most of them retired and in their 70s, would be put at risk. Many regular workers have told her already that they would not work the May elections, she said.
Also, Van Wolfe said her staff now has to go back and rework the database and reconfigure ballots now that some cities and schools have dropped out. Some at the meeting said officials could use the regular polling locations, Van Wolfe said. However, with entities dropping out, there is no need for polling sites now in McGregor, Crawford and Bellmead, she said. Plus, others have rescinded permission to use their buildings, Van Wolfe said.
Van Wolfe said her office already is behind in sending out mail-in ballots because of the election uncertainties and now will have another two-week setback because of the changing plans. Early voting starts April 20.
Deaver said voters 65 and older and those with existing illnesses, including immune deficiencies, or with physical disabilities can apply for mail-in ballots if they are concerned about going to the polls.
“We clearly would like to keep the election on May 2,” Deaver said. “We have talked a lot between the three of us, and keeping the sanctity of the local election in May is important.”
Waco ISD board candidate Hope Balfa-Mustakim said Wednesday that she, school board candidates Keith Guillory and Ilda Sabido and Waco mayor candidate Dave Morrow all favor postponing the elections because of health and safety concerns.
“We are all asking for our local elections to be postponed so that voters can come to the polls without putting their health at risk,” Balfa-Mustakim said. “I personally believe it is an act of voter suppression.”
Kyle DeBeer, Waco ISD chief of staff, and board President Angela Tekell were on Wednesday’s call. DeBeer, like Waco city officials, said the school board has called an election and hired the county to run it, and that is the direction the district is heading unless the board changes that course.
“There really is no precedent for the type of situation we find ourselves in with this health crisis,” DeBeer said. “This is the type of thing that requires collaboration and communication and coordination among the participating entities. That is why, with the appearance of unilaterally acting without any authority to do so on the part of the election administrator, it has raised a lot of questions. I didn’t hear a clear answer today as to why she would unilaterally cancel a contract and on whose authority she was acting on.”
Van Wolfe raised concerns about election contests and a dramatically lower voter turnout if officials expect voters to show up at polling places while businesses, restaurants and other locations are under the current lockdown orders.
Someone on the phone conference said they do not expect turnout to be affected by the coronavirus outbreak because there is high participation in the schools’ curbside meal and curriculum distribution programs, Van Wolfe said.
City and school elections have notoriously low voter turnouts even when there is no health crisis. In the 2018 city of Waco elections, 631 people, or 5.7% of registered voters, cast a ballot. In Waco ISD elections that year, 197 people voted, or 2.4% of registered voters, according to county records.