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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Texas Longhorns linebacker Jake Ehlingers' death this spring was the result of an accidental drug overdose, according to a statement by the late student's family.
According to the statement, the 20-year-old University of Texas student and Westlake High grad overdosed on pills believed to be Xanax laced with Fentanyl, an often-deadly combo that has resulted in thousands of accidental fatalities nationwide.
Ehlinger was found dead off campus May 6 in a tragedy that shook the Austin and UT community, as well as Ehlinger's family, including his brother, former UT quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who now plays for the NFL's Indianapolis Colts.
An honorable mention All-State player and district defensive MVP while in high school, Ehlinger followed in his brother's footsteps and continued his football career as a walk-on at UT. He was also a sophomore in finance, a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and a member of the Texas Silver Spurs, a student organization that cares for beloved mascot Bevo the Longhorn.
Counterfeit Xanax pills have caused an increasing number of fatalities in the area with 1,000 deaths related to synthetic opioids in the state in 2020. Drug dealers have begun stuffing fentanyl, an opiod that the DEA said can be up to 60 times more deadly than heroin, into pills resembling the prescription anti-anxiety medication and selling them to unwitting customers.
"The spread of counterfeit pills is an ongoing and significant issue throughout our country, particularly in schools, colleges and universities," the the Ehlinger family said in a statement. "As our family continues to process Jake's death, we felt it was important to share these details with the hope that Jake will not have died in vain. We pray that sharing Jake's story will help shed light on this problem and prevent other families from also tragically losing a loved one."
To combat the surge of deaths, Austin police now have access to a supply of Narcan, a drug that can combat the effects of an opiod overdose. Though it's not mandatory, APD officers can now check out supplies of the drug when responding to calls. The department had almost completed training on the drug by June, according to a KXAN report.
"You can talk to a number of families that have had family members die because of opioid overdoses and if this was an option to help their loved one or save their loved one, I'm sure that every single one of them would tell you that it was incredibly important that we now have this incredible tool in our tool belt," Assistant Chief Scott Perry said in the report.
Ehlinger is remembered by his brother, Sam, his mother Jena, his sister Morgen and the University of Texas community. Ehlinger's father, Ross, died of an apparent heart attack while swimming in a triathlon in 2013.
"(Jake) was his dad's little buddy, and they shared an unbreakable bond," Jake's obituary read. "His father's spirit was alive and well in every part of Jake's life. Tragic life circumstances created a unique opportunity for Sam and Jake to uplift and empower each other. They were each other's biggest fans. Their mother, Jena, as well as their sister, Morgen, were the loves of Jake's life. Everyone will miss his giant hugs, but no one more than Jena and Morgen."
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Eight of the world's best Brazilian jiu-jitsu athletes flew into Austin in September to be in the new hub for the sport. But after over a decade of fighting together, they'll no longer be under the same name.
The legendary Danaher Death Squad, which started in 2007 and was led by black belt John Danaher, made a highly-publicized split in late July while in Puerto Rico, with Danaher, legend Gordon Ryan and teammate Gary Tonon announcing the aptly-titled "New Wave Jiu Jitsu" as their new studio to open soon in Austin.
Missing from the new roster were former teammates Craig Jones, Ethan Crelinstein, Nick Rodriguez and even Ryan's younger brother, Nicky Ryan. The new crew announced that day that they would also be forming a new studio with the tongue-in-cheek title "B Team Jiu Jitsu."
Jiu jitsu greats Craig Jones (left) and Gordon Ryan have opened rival studios in Austin.
Both teams chose to move to Austin, a hotbed for the sport that the B Team's Seth Belisle said is becoming a "mecca for jiu-jitsu." With plenty of renowned studios, jiu-jitsu enthusiasts like Joe Rogan coming into town and the presence of Flo Grappling, the sport's premier media outlet, Belisle said there's now "more jiu-jitsu here than anywhere in the world."
While Belisle, an Austin native, handles the business side for the crew, the team's coaching is headed by Jones, a leopard-print wearing Aussie who has been known to sport assless chaps and places importance on the lighter side of things (the studio advertises that they train "Mexican ground karate," a name they created for jiu-jitsu).
Rumors abound about the famed fighters' breakup, including money issues in the Ryan family or a well-rehearsed PR stunt, but Jones told Austonia that the split of the Death Squad simply comes down to personal differences between the fighters.
"It wasn't an amicable breakup at all," Jones said. "What Gordan represents is quite controversial... I would say there would be no line he wouldn't cross to promote a grappling match. So in that sense, we're sort of focused on a different, more positive sort of vibe."
B Team and New Wave alike are opening at a critical time for jiu-jitsu, as the sport slowly becomes a household name. Now, top fighters can make a living from their sport while still maintaining a much lower profile than MMA fighters or boxers.
That name recognition and B Team's positive attitude drew in droves of new trainees, with many opting to move to Austin solely to train at B Team.
"Jiu-jitsu is a relatively new sport," Belisle said. "If you love basketball, it's impossible for you to say, 'I'm going to go play with LeBron James and learn from him this weekend... in jiu-jitsu, that's possible. You have access to the stars of the sport because it hasn't really blown up yet. It's something special."
After an open house that saw over 150 athletes show up, the team realized they needed to become more exclusive. Now, the studio trains only the "Olympians" of the sport, something that sets them apart from other local studios. They also frequently bring in celebrities of the sport for training sessions, including famed female fighter Ffion Eira Davies.
"We're obviously a new gym, but we're probably some of the best guys in the world," Jones said.
Meanwhile, New Wave is training at the famed Renzo Gracie Studio, Danaher's former trainer, as they wait for a new studio.
Will the world's two best teams soon have showdowns in the Texas capital?
While it's unclear whether or not things will get personal (no brother vs. brother matchup is on the horizon), trainees under each studio went head-to-head for the first time Wednesday as New Wave's Gordon Ryan announced his first match out of semi-retirement. Ryan, often lauded as the best grappler in the world, forced UFC fighter Phillip Rowe to submit four times in the 15-minute friendly exhibition match at Austin's Palmer Events Center.
But Rowe, who was first a jiu-jitsu athlete before switching to UFC, said he didn't know about the beef and was just looking to train under his favorite athletes, Jones and Rodriguez.
He competed for a few reasons—including a break from UFC and a chance to give BJJ a bigger name—but he mostly came into town for the fun of it. Ryan and Rowe talked often prior to the meet, with Rowe gifting Ryan a Bumpboxx, or decorated boombox, in honor of Ryans' father. The respect was mutual—Ryan shouted out Rowe after the match for coming out with a broken hand and the death of some loved ones a week prior.
The match was the first indirect competition between the two gyms. Jones said they won't be training with the goal of fighting any of their former New Wave compadres.
"I don't know what's going to happen ultimately," Jones said. "Because obviously, we're not friendly as it is right now, but I mean. I wouldn't go so far as to train someone that was going to compete against them directly."
But with B Team fighters like Nick Rodriguez expressing their interest in fighting in the future and both gyms training for the WNO Championships in 2022, it's almost inevitable that the former teammates will find themselves on either side of the mat sooner or later.
"'I'd be lying if I said that every day since I started jiu-jitsu my goal is to beat Gordon. I'd be lying if I was saying that isn't true," Rodriguez told the Jason Chambers podcast. "My goal is to be the best grappler in the world and nothing less. That's an old teammate that I have to go through to knock him out and get to the top, then that's fine with me."
Atop one of Austin's signature rolling hilltops, 1501 Ridgecrest Drive is similar to one of the plush palaces that one might find in Calabasas. For $10.9 million, the home has four bedrooms, four-and-a-half bathrooms and caps at 10,498 square feet.
Park in the massive, fully air-conditioned garage before walking in, where you'll have eight full spaces to park your collection of cars. If you're not a collector, the garage makes an excellent studio space.
The wide-open living spaces will draw your eyes to the two-story ceilings, glass catwalk, integrated fireplace and wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the pool.
Though the house was built in 2011, it doesn't show its age. Sleek, clean lines lead seamlessly from the formal living area to an elite open-plan kitchen. Separated by a 25-foot waterfall island that can seat at least eight people, the kitchen is fitted with only the finest Miele and Subzero appliances. The custom cabinets are just as pricey as the rest of the place, finished with custom high-gloss Aston Martin (you read that right) paint.
Upstairs in the sprawling master's suite, there are enough amenities to never have to set foot outside again. Armani tile floors, space for living and a walk-in showcase closet lead into the resort-style bathroom, where you'll find dual vanities, a walk-in shower and a lounging bathtub.
The bedroom is a quick elevator trip away from the "party" room, complete with a bar, wine room and movie theater, only the best for entertaining. If your guests are staying over, rest assured they'll be comfortable with the kitchenette, washer and dryer and spa-like bath in their suite.
Though summer has passed, you can still enjoy the grand lap pool's unobstructed Hill Country views, many private lounging areas, grill a homemade snack at the outdoor kitchen or shoot some hoops at the newly-added court.
The listing is held by Compass' Gary Dolch.
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