The Galveston County Clerk’s decision Wednesday to withdraw from conducting local elections scheduled for May 3 puts local elected officials in a very awkward and unfortunate position.
Clerk Dwight Sullivan’s decision was in keeping with advice from Gov. Greg Abbott, who hours before had issued a proclamation allowing local elections across Texas to be delayed to avoid crowds gathering and reduce the spread of coronavirus.
Abbott on Wednesday strongly encouraged cities to postpone their elections until the fall and Thursday banned social gatherings of more than 10.
Most of the cities, school districts and other governments contract with the county clerk’s office to conduct their elections. Most entities have neither the equipment nor the general expertise to do it themselves.
The election office was contracted to run 20 local entity elections on May 3, officials said.
“At this point, we feel that it’s in the best interest of not only the staff but the public to move it,” Sullivan said. “It’s just a big risk for the public to take to come out to vote.”
Among the elections likely to be delayed are city council and mayoral elections in Galveston, Texas City and Dickinson and bond elections for the Galveston, Friendswood and Dickinson school districts.
The governor’s advice and the county clerk’s decision leave those cities and school districts with few options, none of them very good.
They can attempt to organize the elections themselves in the 30 days between now and the start of early voting on April 20, or they can postpone them until November.
The question is whether there’s really a practical choice here, or just a false choice, an illusion of options.
It’s clearly the latter.
In the first place, the work organizing the elections would have to be done while all of the cities and school districts also were attempting to manage a public emergency like none of us has experienced before.
It would cost at least $50,000 and perhaps as much as $100,000 at a time when revenue from sources such as sales tax will take a hit.
This should be an easy decision for some. Galveston’s public school district, for example, which planned to ask voters May 3 to approve more than $200 million in bond debt. The district can’t ask voters to do that while they’re wondering whether they’ll be able to make mortgage payments in May.
It’s a much more complicated and awkward decision for others, including and especially the Galveston City Council, which plans to deliberate the matter next week. It is so because most of the incumbents fated to make the decision also are candidates in the election.
There is no way they can vote to postpone without it appearing self-serving to some people.
Even so, the council should vote to postpone and Galveston residents should support that decision, as should the challengers for those council seats.
And the bottom line is if — as the president has said, the governor has said twice and the county clerk argues — there’s a public safety risk in gathering in groups of more than 10 people, the councils, commissions and boards of trustees charged with making the final decisions have no choice but to follow suit.
• Michael A. Smith