100% Austin news, info, and entertainment, straight to your inbox at 6 a.m. every morning.
In five minutes, you're fully informed and ready to start another great day in our city.
By Emma Platoff
Voting rights advocates and civic groups have rushed to the courthouse in a bid to block Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's Oct. 1 order allowing Texas counties no more than one drop-off location for voters casting absentee ballots, calling the directive an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote that will disproportionately impact voters of color in the state's biggest cities.
The Texas and National Leagues of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas and two Texas voters asked a federal judge in Austin in a lawsuit filed late Thursday to overturn the governor's order, which forced Travis and Harris counties — two of the state's most important Democratic strongholds — to shutter a number of drop-off sites they had already opened this week.
"The impact of this eleventh-hour decisions is momentous, targets Texas' most vulnerable voters—older voters, and voters with disabilities—and results in wild variations in access to absentee voting drop-off locations depending on the county a voter resides in," attorneys for the groups argued. "It also results in predictable disproportionate impacts on minority communities that already hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis."
Attorneys also pointed out that Abbott was making a major change to election procedures just weeks away from an election — an action the state and its attorneys argued was improper in a separate federal lawsuit over straight-ticket voting.
Unprecedented numbers of Texas voters are requesting mail-in ballots for the highly charged election as the nation is in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. Many of those voters are expected to drop off their ballots in person rather than entrusting them to the U.S. Postal Service, which has been plagued by cutbacks and doubts over its ability to deliver ballots early enough to be counted.
Texas Republicans have vigorously fought efforts to facilitate increased mail-in balloting, particularly in Harris County, the state's largest and a Democratic stronghold where voter turnout could prove pivotal in this year's election.
Asked about the lawsuit, Abbott spokesman John Wittman said the governor "has expanded access to voting."
Months ago, Abbott extended the early voting period by nearly a week and allowed voters to deliver their absentee ballots in person earlier than usual, citing the pandemic. His order this week limited where voters may turn in those ballots, not when.
Wittman added that the governor's Oct. 1 order concerns only absentee ballots, most of which he said are submitted by mail.
"The additional time provided for those who want to submit their mail-in ballot in person is sufficient to accommodate the limited number of people who have traditionally used that voting strategy," Wittman said.
But more absentee ballots than ever are expected to be cast this year — some counties have already sent out twice as many as usual — and there are concerns about delays from the U.S. Postal Service.
The lawsuit will have to move quickly, with early voting set to begin in less than two weeks on Oct. 13.
Harris and Travis counties had each set up multiple locations for accepting absentee ballots and had already begun accepting them before Abbott issued his order shutting down the satellite locations. Voting rights experts say access to these locations is especially important given concerns over U.S. Postal Service delays and that closing them will disproportionately impact voters with disabilities or without access to reliable transportation. Harris County is home to 2.4 million registered voters and stretches across some 1,700 square miles, more than the entire state of Rhode Island.
Ralph Edelbach of Cypress, an 82-year-old voter among those suing Abbott, had planned to drop his ballot off at a Harris County location that was 16 miles from his home — but now will have to travel 36 miles, nearly 90 minutes round trip, to reach the only location Abbott has allowed to stay open, according to court documents.
At a press conference Friday morning, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said he could reopen the shuttered locations "at the drop of a dime."
"Ultimately, anything that's done to decrease voter convenience, to put obstacles in the way of the voter, is voter suppression, and will lead to disenfranchisement," he said.
Abbott's order, which came a day after the Texas solicitor general approved Harris County's plan for multiple locations under earlier guidance from the governor, also said counties must allow poll watchers to observe goings-on at ballot drop-off sites. Voting rights advocates fear that poll watchers, who are selected by candidates or political parties, will seek to intimidate voters, as has been documented in the past.
Abbott claimed the limits on drop-off locations were necessary to ensure election integrity. But he provided no evidence that the drop-off sites enable voter fraud, which experts say is rare.
And the procedures for delivering an absentee ballot are strict. Voters must present an approved form of identification, show up during specified hours and can only deliver their own ballots.
Texas is one of just a few states that is not allowing all voters to cast their ballots by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. Beyond extending the early voting timeframe, the state has done very little to expand Texans' options for voting safely this fall. And its criteria for absentee ballots are unusually strict: Voters can vote by mail only if they are 65 or older, confined in jail but otherwise eligible, out of the county for the election period or cite a disability. The Texas Supreme Court has said that lack of immunity to the novel coronavirus does not itself constitute a disability, but that voters may consider that alongside their medical histories to decide whether they qualify.
Harris County started accepting completed applications Sept. 28, and had collected 39 as of Thursday evening. Travis County opened four locations Oct. 1.
Democrats and voting rights groups immediately condemned Abbott's as an attempt at voter suppression.
Ross Ramsey contributed to this report.
- The light rail guide to Austin's Project Connect transit plan - austonia ›
- No straight-ticket voting for Texas' 2020 election - austonia ›
- Dem nominee MJ Hegar raises $13.5 million in third quarter - austonia ›
- Voting guide: local mobility propositions on the November ballot ... ›
- Free this Election Night? Here are 7 Austin watch parties - austonia ›
- Abbott vs. Beto 2022: the race to become Texas Governor - austonia ›
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.
- How Elon Musk has spent the last 10 days since turning 50 - austonia ›
- Tesla's Elon Musk says Austin factory could hire 10k jobs - austonia ›
- Elon Musk announces Austin Gigafactory will open in 2021 - austonia ›
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."
- Police Chief Brian Manley stepping down amid police protest ... ›
- Austin city manager names interim police chief, starts search ... ›
- Austin searches for new police chief amid reform process - austonia ›
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.
- Austin ISD reports enrollment drop due to virtual learning - austonia ›
- Austin ISD goes fully in-person for 2021-22 school year - austonia ›
- Austin ISD receives COVID-19 vaccine for eligible staff - austonia ›
- AISD considers temporary remote learning amid holiday surge ... ›
- Austin ISD sees enrollment fall amid COVID, raising funding ... ›
- Austin private schools see continued COVID enrollment bump ... ›
- Austin ISD enrollment decline may lead to layoffs amid COVID ... ›