ROUND ROCK — After local officials tried to postpone an election and give themselves an extra year in power, the Texas attorney general is stepping in with a stern warning.
In the Austin suburb of Round Rock, the city council recently voted almost unanimously to postpone its local election by an entire year. Mayor Craig Morgan and two councilmembers—Tammy Young and Will Peckham—were facing re-election this May, but all three voted to put off the election until May 2021.
Back in April, the council delayed the election until November after Gov. Greg Abbott allowed them to because of coronavirus fears. After voting to delay, Mayor Morgan then joined other cities in sending Abbott a letter requesting to host the election sooner than November, saying it would benefit citizens to elect a new council before fall when they will decide on next year’s tax rate and budget.
However, Morgan said that because he didn’t receive a written response from the governor, he and the council then decided to just postpone the now-November election until May 2021, shielding themselves from voters for an entire extra year.
Morgan said he was concerned their names would “get lost” on a November ballot, suggesting voters would somehow be impaired in selecting candidates in the city contests just because federal and state races would appear on the ballot first.
Now, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sent a letter to Morgan and the city council, telling them it is unlawful for them to postpone the election in the way that they did, “effectively allowing its elected officials whose terms would have expired in May 2020 to continue to hold office for another full year.”
“The governor’s proclamation allowed local elections that were scheduled to be held on May 2, 2020, to be moved to November 3, 2020. It was the Round Rock City Council’s decision to move its local election to November, not the governor’s. Because the law does not allow the City Council to move its election a second time in these circumstances, the city must hold its election in November, as it said it would,” Paxton said.
“Infringing the right to vote undermines the basic concept of a republic,” he wrote.
Paxton warned that if the council refused to have their election in November, the city council could be sued—and some could even be removed from office.
“Violating the City’s charter, such as by not calling an election in accordance with the law, may be grounds for a forfeiture of office,” Paxton said. “Finally, an unlawful officeholder may be removed from office through a quo warranto action. We trust this letter clarifies the City’s legal obligation to hold its election on the November 3, 2020, uniform election date.”
Citizens also reacted against the council’s decision, posting online and even showing up to testify directly to the council at a city meeting last week.
“I think it’s appalling and shameful, and it’s really voter suppression,” said local resident Tracy McLain.
“It is an abuse of power for them to extend their own terms in office and shorten their potential successors’ terms,” said citizen Amy Gelfand. “The mayor does not want the municipal elections buried at the bottom of the November ballot, and I thank you for your concern, but I am sure that all the voting adults in Round Rock are capable of reading their entire ballot.”
“You think the citizens—we the people of this city—are not competent enough to drive to a polling location, take that ballot, [and] fill it out,” Round Rock resident John Curtis told the council, adding their decision was a “blatant act of voter suppression.”
“You’re looking at 5,000 votes in a good scenario for a May election versus 50,000 possible votes in this coming [November] election,” Curtis continued. “This isn’t about people getting lost at the bottom of the ballot; this is about you getting to choose your voters instead of the voters choosing you.”
“It was a little hard to accept that my city was making such an unprecedented and potentially careless decision, especially when guidance about the legality of it was a phone call away,” commented resident Joseph McCullough. “It seems like with a city attorney on staff and with Mayor Morgan himself being an attorney, they obviously knew of the resources available to them to determine whether their decision to postpone would be legal or not.”
Paxton’s full letter to the Round Rock officials can be viewed here.