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

Michael A. Smith: 409-683-5206; michael.smith@galvnews.com

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(9) comments

Tony Brown

I serve as President of the Galveston ISD Board of Trustees. Our Board will hold its Regular Monthly Meeting next week (by videoconference) and decide whether to postpone our May bond election. Personally, I will advocate for the postponement. Attempting to hold an election during our State's first declared Public Health Disaster since 1901, with so many facing the possible loss of their livelihoods, is simply not the right thing to do. It may cost us more later as a result, but that's just the way it is.

Charlotte O'rourke

Overall, I think our local and state leaders have made wise decisions in the public's best interests. This is one of those tough decisions. I believe the right call would be to postpone the elections until November.

Wayne D Holt

I agree that the county has tied the city's hands in this matter, for all practical purposes. And it very well may be more sacrificial than self-serving on the part of current council to extend the campaign season for non-incumbent candidates to do their thing, although voters may feel the lengthened campaign is more painful than the virus itself.

What I find most curious indeed is this one line from Mr. Sullivan, which is the sum total of the justification for the postponement. “It’s just a big risk for the public to take to come out to vote.”

Is it really? When we are standing in long lines for food, working in offices with others, going to stores with others nearby to keep life going in as normal a way as possible? Can we not stand farther apart in voting lines? Has the county run out of sanitizing gel along with the stores to wipe voting machine surfaces? For some strange reason, a free people being allowed to vote on the ordained day for this civic ritual is now too dangerous to contemplate.

We can't vote, can't dine at outdoor eateries and cafes and the beaches may soon be forbidden if some arbitrary number of Spring Breakers (now on perpetual break) don't leave.

Where does this end? The historic data vis a vis annual flu deaths doesn't support the limits now required of us. We are being asked (or conditioned) to accept extreme restrictions on the flimsiest of premises that don't stand up to scrutiny.

I believe it's time for businesses and individuals to push back on this before we find, like the French now do, we have to fill out a form and ask permission of the government to leave our home if we want to avoid a fine.

David Schuler

It's not the individual voters at risk. It would be the poll workers who would have to interact with all the voters and disinfect each voting machine between voters. I would not want to ask people to volunteer to do that. November will be very interesting.

Bailey Jones

I suspect the virus will be old news by November. (Unless it comes back like the flu.)

Wayne D Holt

David, I know from your writings in the past your heart and head are in the right place. But if we accept that premise, the sacred right to choose our government becomes an issue of polling place health for those who are working the desk, at least until we have remote voting capability. I don't think we want to go there and I am sure precautions could be made to minimize contact. It is probably too late for the May general election but I think it is indicative of the lack of will on the part of those making decisions to work with the present health emergency but not let it overturn our society in the process. Delaying a general election in this country for months is no small thing. To do it because we're being conditioned to accept alterations in the fundamental fabric of our society is a bigger threat than the virus, IMHO.

David Schuler

Wayne, I am often the first to criticize use of the term "from an abundance of caution". That phrase has become the go-to excuse for people and companies afraid of legal consequences and parents afraid that their little darlings may get a scratch, or worse, have their massive self-esteem questioned in any way. But i do believe this situation is different, at least in the next three to six months. People in leadership positions have to walk a fine line - too little, people die from the virus. Going too far (closing grocery stores, for example) means riots and people die from bullets. The upside-down bell curve of death. So while i agree wholeheartedly that postponing an election is a very difficult decision, the county made the right choice this time. However, as soon as we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, it's time to call an election and keep our process running. If we put at least some of the partisan rhetoric aside, we can all get through this pretty much intact. Thanks for your comments as well.

Bailey Jones

Public health emergencies tend to get bad press - if you take drastic action and avoid the worst, people say "see... I knew you were overreacting!" If things go south they say, "WHY DIDN'T YOU DO MORE???" Let's hope for the former.

Wayne D Holt

David, you should run for office. You are thoughtful in your responses. Thanks for your follow-on post.

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