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As the cities of Waco and Gholson and Waco and Midway school districts contemplate whether to postpone their May 2 elections, McLennan County Elections Administrator Kathy Van Wolfe is waiting to hear from them and wondering what they are debating.
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 a proclamation from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott allowed cities and school districts to postpone their local elections because of public health concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
Van Wolfe contacted the entities and gave them until Thursday to let her know if they intend to postpone their elections. She joins Abbott in strongly encouraging them to do so until the Nov. 3 general election.
Of the nine, the cities of Bellmead, Hewitt, Mart and McGregor and Crawford ISD have decided to postpone their elections. Also, Valley Mills ISD and Connally ISD, which are leasing equipment from the county, also have postponed their independently run elections.
While the others are trying to decide, Van Wolfe has told them that if they do not postpone, her office still will lease equipment to them, but they are on their own as far as running the elections and tabulating the results.
That means they will have to find election workers from a mostly elderly workforce, many of whom already have told Van Wolfe not to count on them this election cycle because of their fears of COVID-19. It also means they will have to find election sites at a time when government edicts have closed schools, churches and community centers and limited gatherings.
Van Wolfe will talk with McLennan County Judge Scott Felton, Waco city and school officials and Midway ISD officials Wednesday morning to discuss the May 2 election. She said she remains a bit puzzled about their hesitation to postpone the elections while most county residents are under directives to stay home, and she can provide a litany of reasons for delaying the elections.
Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said he feels strongly that the May 2 election date should be kept. Spokespersons for both Waco ISD and Midway ISD said Tuesday that school officials remains undecided on the issue and look forward to discussing it further.
“There are a number of reasons why I feel that way,” Deaver said. “For one thing, we have candidates who are both ready to run and serve and I don’t have any reason to believe that at this point that the health situation will be any better in November that it will be in May. So that interjects a lot of uncertainty in the situation.”
Health officials project COVID-19 infections will decrease with the warmer weather but fear there may be a resurgence in the fall, Deaver said.
“Another element is that in a November presidential election, our city and school board elections just get lost,” Deaver said. “Our candidates don’t have the budgets to spend a lot to get noticed at that time of the year, and a lot of people voting in those elections don’t know about local city or school candidates and don’t care. That interjects a wild card into it that could be dangerous. There is a smaller turnout in those city and school races but they seem to be better informed.”
Van Wolfe said before straight-ticket voting was eliminated in Texas, there was a tendency for people to flip the switch and never look at down-ballot candidates. Now, in November elections, officials put city and school board candidates above all others, including in a presidential election year, so local candidates do not get lost in the larger, general election shuffle.
Difficult to administer
With current restrictions in place, Van Wolfe said it would be difficult to set up election equipment for voters at a proper distance to eliminate health-related concerns. Also, machines would need to be sanitized after each use with materials that are in short supply, and election workers would need to be shielded with protective gear that might best be used by first responders or health care professionals, she said.
“I just don’t think it is the right thing to do to tell people you can’t go to school, you can’t go to work, you can’t go to your places of worship, but you can go out to vote,” Van Wolfe said. “I just don’t think it is going to get better before it gets worse, and the timing is just not right for an election now.”
Not postponing the elections also potentially opens the county to litigation through election challenges from losing candidates who could claim they could not get their supporters to the polls because of the pandemic or from voters who fear exercising their rights because of health concerns.
“I just don’t think it is the right thing to do and I don’t want to put the county at risk for lawsuits from voters who feel they are disenfranchised or that we participated in voter suppression because we are not offering voting for everybody for those who were afraid to go out,” Van Wolfe siad. “They can’t go anywhere else, but we are going to ask them to come out and vote?”
In 23 years working for McLennan County and five years as elections administrator in Fort Bend County before that, Van Wolfe said she has never postponed an election. However, she recalls an election in 1980 that Galveston officials postponed for a few weeks because of a hurricane, but they did not move it to a uniform election day, such as the November general election.
That election was contested, and the results were thrown out with orders to do it all over again, Van Wolfe said.
Also, the uncertainty of the times has delayed the distribution of mail-in ballots and might jeopardize them being received on time, she said. Early voting is set now to start April 20, with other deadlines looming and preparations that must be made, Van Wolfe said.
Deaver said he thinks the city and schools can recruit election workers from their employees who currently are off work. Also, he said the Waco Convention Center, schools, libraries and community centers that are closed now most likely can be used as polling locations.
“If you can check out at H-E-B in a relatively safe manner, then I think we can vote safely by keeping proper social distancing, sanitizing the machines after each vote, protecting election workers and taking other precautions,” Deaver said.
City and school elections typically have a voter turnout of from 5% to 10%. In this situation if the elections are not postponed, Van Wolfe said that troubling total would dip dramatically.