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From high turnout to staffing concerns, from the importance of mail-in voting to safety at the polls, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir and other observers view last week's rescheduled primary runoff and special election as a tip-of-the-iceberg dry run for a new Election Day normal.
"July definitely taught us some lessons that we are going to really put to use before the November election," said DeBeauvoir.
Here are five things, in no particular order, that election officials and watchdogs say they learned during the most recent election.
1. Turnout will be HIGH
The July 14 election happened under circumstances that should have turned off many voters: triple-digit heat, fear of a contagious virus and a short ballot. It was also in July, which never has elections. But voters were not deterred. Typical primary runoff turnout is about 5%, DeBeauvoir said.
Last Tuesday, turnout topped 21%.
The numbers can be attributed to not only increased interest in current events and politics, but also an expensive get-out-the-vote effort and hotly contested local races that captured the public's interest in policing and criminal justice in the wake of police brutality protests, said Antonio Gutierrez of Common Cause Texas, which tracks elections.
"Down-ballot races don't usually drive turnout as much as the top of the ticket, but in this case, people had the rare opportunity to weigh in on an open state Senate seat, plus everything happening in the criminal justice realm really put the county [attorney] and district attorney races in the spotlight in a way you don't normally see," Gutierrez said.
Much of that enthusiasm is expected to translate to November, when the race between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden is forecast to have record voter engagement.
That rings true even in red-state Texas, where some recent polling shows Biden competitive with the Republican incumbent and where, for the first time in recent history, the presidential election might be a real competition.
2. We'll need more poll workers
In the days leading up to the election, some 25 workers backed out, DeBeauvoir said. On Election Day, another six or eight didn't show up.
The county had several employees on standby to handle last-minute no-shows, and poll hours weren't affected. But they'll be looking to hire more employees to staff the 200 Election Day polling sites and 35 early voting locations for the November contests to avoid empty chairs and shut-down voting sites.
The average age of a Travis County election worker is somewhere around 70, DeBeauvoir said—a demographic particularly vulnerable to COVID-19—but more young people are getting interested in working the polls.
Extra staffers this year would be needed to make sure people are social distancing in line and count people coming in the doors so that there aren't too many people inside at once, she said.
She estimated her office would budget an additional $500,000 for extra staff and personal protection equipment.
3. Polling places will be a problem
One big challenge that lies ahead, DeBeauvoir said, is going to be nailing down—and keeping—some 200 polling sites for Nov. 3.
Last week, there were 100 polling sites open on Election Day for the much smaller runoff, and—like workers—getting and keeping those was a battle, DeBeauvoir said.
"I'm a little worried about being able to find places in the middle of a pandemic," DeBeauvoir said. "It was difficult to get 100 places to say 'yes' and then stick with 'yes.' Some called back and said, 'No, we changed our mind, we're too frightened.' And I have sympathy for them, but it doesn't help me bring the election to voters."
Sites will have to be larger than they normally are to accommodate social distancing and keep the lines manageable, she said.
Grocery stores were off the list for early voting sites during the July election due to social distancing, and will likely not be willing participants in November either, she said.
A sizable chunk of polling sites traditionally are in schools, and with classes potentially back in session by then, the schools likely will not be willing to accommodate the influx of voters during the pandemic—nor should they, DeBeauvoir said.
"That's a real problem," she said. "With the loss of all of the facilities ... it's going to be hard to find enough locations that are convenient to voters, both on Election Day and for early voting. It's going to be a real challenge."
4. We'll need to update behind-the-scenes staff for mail-in voting
In addition to adding poll workers, DeBeauvoir said she'll be doing some restructuring behind the scenes as well.
Every election, the Early Voting Ballot Board is in charge of overseeing early votes and certifying signatures and mail-in ballots.
But even though DeBeauvoir hired three times the usual number of workers—more than 50 in total—to sift through applications and verify signatures, that won't be enough to handle the volume of mail-in requests and increased turnout for the November election, she said.
"We're going to have five times as many" mail-in ballots and requests, DeBeauvoir said.
For the next election, she'll hire more people and restructure some of the behind-the-scenes labor, schedule them in shifts, and generally beef up the operations.
Some structural changes could become permanent if voters pressure their lawmakers to expand mail-in balloting to everyone, as some states have done, Gutierrez said. So far, efforts to expand the eligibility for mail-in voting have been unsuccessful.
Part of the extra $1 million spent in this last election went toward handling the influx with new envelope-stuffing machines that helped get mail-in ballots out to voters and high-speed scanners to deal with the volume, she said. Those were one-time expenses that won't need to be made again for this November.
5. PPE was worth the money
A large chunk of the extra $1 million in election expenses went toward personal protection equipment, and voters used it dutifully, DeBeauvoir said. The county will employ the same strategy on a larger scale in November, and start stockpiling supplies now in case there's a shortage later this year.
Not only were voters and poll workers using the equipment, she said, but almost every voter wore a mask. People also used the sanitizer and the finger cots and popsicle sticks were popular ways to minimize contact with the machines, she said.
"Voters understood intuitively how to use them, so that worked really well, and we're going to continue that," she said. "In other words, we know now how voters respond to ways to keep the polling place safe, and I think it's working really well."
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Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced a record-setting second quarter during an earnings call broadcasted from the Giga Texas construction site in Southeast Travis County on Monday.
The electric carmaker reported more than $1 billion in quarterly net income and the production of more than 200,000 vehicles for the first time despite challenges such as a global semiconductor shortage.
"It … seems that public sentiment towards electric vehicles is at an inflection point, and at this point, I think, almost everyone agrees electric vehicles are the only way forward," Musk said.
Exterior shots taken just a while ago of Giga Texas (while @elonmusk is reportedly at the Gigafactory!) during today's earnings call!
Hope @peterdog15 got to catch the technoking in his video! #fastestinhistory #Tesla pic.twitter.com/WqeDlb5wU3
— Austin Tesla Club (@AustinTeslaClub) July 26, 2021
Despite rising consumer demand and adequate factory capacity, Tesla faces what Musk described as a "quite serious" global semiconductor shortage, which will determine the company's growth rate for the rest of the year.
With increased revenue and production, Tesla is investing in new factories, Chief Financial Officer Zachary Kirkhorn said. These include Giga Texas, the $1.1 billion manufacturing plant that broke ground last summer and is slated to open later this year.
The Giga Texas factory in Southeast Travis County has rapidly increased in size since ground broke last August. (Tesla)
Musk commended the construction team for "incredible progress," transforming what was basically a vacant site into "a mostly complete large factory a year later."
I was at Giga Texas yesterday. Team is making excellent progress. Building will be almost a mile long when complete.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 25, 2021
Giga Texas will produce the highly anticipated Cybertruck, along with other models, but Musk said scaling its production will be difficult, especially given the supply chain delays caused by the pandemic. "It's going to move as fast as the slowest of its up to 10,000 unique parts," he said.
In other news, Musk said Monday's earnings call would likely be his last regular appearance, only jumping on future quarterly calls when big announcements warrant it.
Tesla Solar recently made news when it announced plans to build the nation's most sustainable residential community in Southeast Austin earlier this month. The newly built homes will feature Tesla solar roof tiles and Powerwall battery storage as well as electric vehicle charging stations.
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The city of Austin released a shortlist of seven candidates for the police chief position left vacant when Brian Manley retired in March.
City Manager Spencer Cronk hopes to announce an appointment by the end of August, which will require City Council approval.
The finalists, chosen from a field of 46 applicants, include:
- APD Interim Chief Joseph Chacon, who previously served as an assistant chief in the department for almost five years
- Anne Kirkpatrick, former police chief in Oakland, California, who was fired last year after a federal monitor criticized her handling of a fatal 2018 police shooting of a homeless man
- Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Avery L. Moore, who is a 30-year veteran of the department
- Atlanta Police Department Deputy Chief Celeste Murphy, who manages the department's community services division
- Dekalb County Police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who previously served as division chief in the Miami-Dade Police Department
- Wichita Police Department Chief Gordon Ramsay, who is a former president of the Minnesota Police Chief's Association as well as one of the first police chiefs of a major U.S. City to call George Floyd's death a murder, as reported by the Wichita Eagle
- Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Emada E. Tingirides, who is also commanding officer of the department's newly formed Community Safety Partnership Bureau, which serves L.A.'s underserved communities
City staff will interview the finalists in the coming weeks, with several community input opportunities to come, according to a Monday press release.
The city conducted a public survey in March and hosted community input meetings in April to learn more about what residents are looking for in their next police chief, which helped shape the selection criteria for the position.
"They want to see the Chief be reform-minded and transparent and have a track record of fostering community involvement and accountability," Cronk said in the release. "The candidates selected show these characteristics in various ways."
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Days after Austin began once again recommending masks in public spaces, Austin ISD announced Monday that kindergarten through sixth-grade classes will have virtual options this fall.
The district will discuss the move in a special board meeting Monday evening starting at 5 p.m., while full details will be released Friday.
Teachers will not have to fret about the new option—no educators will have to juggle both virtual and in-person learning. Instead, certain teachers will specialize in virtual education, according to a press release.
The news comes after a recent spike in COVID cases in Travis County and across the nation. Children typically suffer fewer symptoms of COVID when contracted, but they are now catching the virus more often than their older counterparts without a vaccine available to them and as the more contagious Delta variant is quickly being spread.
While local health officials are recommending everyone wear masks, public school districts are unable to mandate masks due to an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in May.
Parents have expressed concern about classrooms with masks unenforceable and children under the age of 12 ineligible for a vaccine. Some have even said they would look for alternative schooling if AISD did not offer a virtual option for students.
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