Elections face uncertainty amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Due to the impact of COVID-19, the primary runoff election and the Texas State Senate District 14 special election will be held at the same time. Gov. Greg Abbott postponed the primary runoff election, which was meant to take place May 26, and now both elections will take place on July 14.
Photo Credit: Eddie Gaspar | Texas Tribune Staff

Editor’s note: This story is part of The Daily Texan’s coverage of how coronavirus concerns are affecting UT-Austin. Read the rest of our coverage here.

The runoff primary election and the Texas State Senate District 14 special election will be held at the same time due to the COVID-19 crisis.

On March 20, Gov. Greg Abbott postponed the primary runoff, changing the election date from May 26 to July 14, the same date as the Texas State Senate District 14 special election.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said these elections are usually not allowed to take place at the same time. She said the new schedule will eliminate one week of early voting from the primary runoff so voters in District 14 can vote in both races at the same time.

“If we're going to have in-person early voting, then it's probably a good idea to go ahead and shorten it,” DeBeauvoir said. “I am not convinced that we're going to be ahead of this virus enough to be able to vote in person by the first of July, so probably shortening it to a week is a good idea.”

On March 20, Texas Democrats filed a lawsuit in Travis County to ensure people who are in self-isolation for COVID-19 qualify for mail-in ballots, allowing them to vote without leaving the house.

“This isn't just an election issue; this is a public health issue,” said Abhi Rahman, communications director for Texas Democrats. “People should be able to feel safe at the ballot box (and) be able to cast their ballot without any concerns about risks to their public health.”

DeBeauvoir said Travis County is increasing its ability to handle voting by mail. Travis County purchased two scanning machines today for mail-in ballots because they expect an increase of citizens voting by mail in the summer.

“By mail would have been the safest option for voters,” DeBeauvoir said. “That’s what we should be doing rather than gathering people in person. If we can relax the standards so that everybody can vote by mail and (use) disability (accommodations) because we're in a pandemic, that's a good choice for voters.”

However, DeBeauvoir said she doesn’t think Texas will exclusively shift to by-mail voting because Republican leaders in the state have historically been against by-mail voting.

Kassie Phebillo, program coordinator for TX Votes, said voting in the summer election for students may be a bit easier, as most use absentee ballots to vote after moving off campus at the end of the school year.

“If we approach this correctly, we should actually see more students voting in runoffs than we typically do, because we have more time to get students kind of aware of what that runoff with that absentee ballot process looks like,” said Phebillo, a communication studies graduate student.

DeBeauvoir said the Travis County Clerk’s office is currently attempting to recruit workers and acquire polling places, which must be signed on by late May. She said polling places are unwilling to commit because of the circumstances.

“We are having to make decisions today, literally today, about the election that's going to happen in July, and we don't know what condition we are going to be in,” DeBeauvoir said.