Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday issued a proclamation allowing cities and school districts to postpone their local elections because of public health concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
“I strongly encourage local election officials to take advantage of these waivers and postpone their elections until November,” Abbott said in a statement. “Right now, the state’s focus is responding to COVID-19 — including social distancing and avoiding large gathering. By delaying this election, our local election officials can assist in that effort.”
Abbott’s actions suspend provisions of the Texas Election Code, giving local cities and schools the option of postponing their May 2 elections until Nov. 3. The decision has no bearing — at least at this time — on the May 26 primary runoff elections. (Update: Abbott has postponed the runoff elections until July 14.)
Local officials were still weighing their options Wednesday.
McLennan County Elections Administrator Kathy Van Wolfe said she sent notices to the nine cities and schools with which her office has contracted to handle the May 2 elections and asked them to let her know by next week if they intend to postpone elections until November.
Van Wolfe said she also encourages local entities to postpone their elections for the safety of their residents and the integrity of the election process.
“It’s a wait-and-see situation,” Van Wolfe said. “I don’t think this virus scare is anywhere near over, and how can you predict how long it will be before there is a vaccination for it and until we all feel safe again? People may say May 2 is a long time away, but there is a lot of preparation that goes into elections that most people are not aware of, and we want everyone who wants to participate in the process to be able to do that without fear for their personal health and safety.”
Van Wolfe’s office has contracts to run the May 2 elections for the cities of Waco, McGregor, Mart, Hewitt, Gholson and Bellmead, plus school elections for Waco, Midway and Crawford ISDs.
Mart City Administrator Kevin Schaffer said city council members will hold an emergency meeting Thursday to declare the city a disaster area. He said the city plans to postpone its May 2 election.
Hewitt City Manager Bo Thomas said the city does not have any immediate plans to postpone the election. He said city council members will continue to evaluate the situation and make a decision in the near future.
“Right at this moment, I don’t think (the election) is at the top of the totem pole,” Thomas said. “Getting the emergency declaration out, making sure people are notified of it, making sure we communicate the message out there, review how we operate and where we are going to limit public contact is (the top priority.)”
City of Waco spokesman Larry Holze said the city council’s next scheduled meeting is April 7, but it might call a special meeting for Tuesday to consider extending the emergency declaration and possibly to discuss the election question.
Waco school officials are considering the proclamation and need additional evaluation before deciding how to proceed, Waco ISD spokesman Josh Wucher said.
Bellmead city officials will discuss the election situation at future meeting, interim City Manager Yost Zakhary said.
A ripple effect from the virus scare that Van Wolfe is dealing with now is finding more election workers. She said many election workers are over 70 and have told her they are quitting those jobs out of concerns they could be exposed to COVID-19.
“They believe in the system, but they can’t risk it,” Van Wolfe said. “Many are over 70, and they have other health issues already. So they are kind of being self-quarantined right now to make sure they don’t get the virus. So we certainly don’t want to put them at risk by having them around the public.”
There also may be an issue with finding new polling locations because some have been at schools, community centers and churches, most of which are currently closed or have limited public access, she said.
While city and school and runoff elections typically have low voter turnout, all factors concerning the pandemic need to be considered, Van Wolfe said. City and school elections typically have from 5% to 10% of eligible voters show up, while runoffs have about 15%, she said.