Making Voting Safe

With COVID-19 cases surging as early voting began, the delayed primary runoffs give Texans first look at casting ballots during pandemic

On the heels of early voting opening for the Texas Primary Runoffs, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered that face coverings must be worn in public across most of the state July 2, a dramatic about face in efforts to control spiking numbers of confirmed novel coronavirus COVID-19 cases across the state.

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Early voting in Bosque County remains open through Friday, July 10 at the Clifton Civic Center and the Bosque County Courthouse in Meridian.

So how will that decision impact the runoff elections in the Heart of Texas? Not one bit -- directly, anyway. The Texas Secretary of State’s office has made clear to local officials that voters cannot be required to wear masks to enter a polling place.

The delayed primary runoffs mark the state's first test of voting during the pandemic and offers a high-stakes dry run for November. But locally, it's already high stakes time in the Republican Runoff for the Bosque County Sheriff nomination between Clifton Police Chief Trace Hendricks and Bosque County Chief Deputy Clint Pullin. The Republican winner will face Democrat candidate Danny Ragsdale in the 2020 General Election Nov. 3.

With the Bosque County Sheriff runoff the only race on the Republican ballot, early voting began June 29 and remains open through this Friday, July 10 with Election Day held Tuesday, July 14. Bosque County voters can cast their early ballots at the Bosque County Courthouse in Meridian and at the Clifton Civic Center.

"For clarification, if you voted in the March primary, you can vote in the runoff, but only for the party that you voted for in the original primary," Bosque County Clerk Tab Ferguson posted on Facebook. "Republican must vote Republican, Democrat must vote Democrat, you can NOT switch parties. If you didn't vote at all in the March Primary, you can choose to vote either Republican or Democrat. GO VOTE!!!"

Initially a three-man race on the Republican Primary ballot seeking to become Bosque County Sheriff with incumbent Anthony Malott choosing to not seek re-election after holding office since Jan. 2009, Hendricks and Pullin earned spots in a runoff election for the right to take on Ragsdale, who ran unopposed on the Democratic ballot.

Despite trailing with nine of 11 precincts reporting on Super Tuesday held March 3, Hendricks handily carried the two Clifton-based precincts reporting late to surge ahead of Pullin and win by only 209 votes with 4,097 total ballots counted. Hendricks finished with 38.6 percent (1,583 votes) of the vote, followed by Pullin with 33.5 percent (1,374), and retired veteran Larry Betik with 27.8 percent (1,140).

Since none of the candidates for County Sheriff managed to draw more than 50 percent of the vote, Hendricks and Pullin move on to the Texas Primary Runoff Election. Originally scheduled to be held Tuesday, May 26, COVID-19 forced the postponement of the runoff.

"This has been a difficult campaign season for all involved," Bosque County Republican Party chairman Janet Jackson said. "The COVID restrictions have not only delayed the Primary Runoff for our two sheriff candidates, but it also restricted them from the usual social interactions for campaigning."

In an effort to re-engage the voting public after almost three months of sheltered isolation due to the pandemic shutdown, the Bosque County Republican Party hosted its pre-runoff election "Party In The Park" at the Bosque Bottoms Pavilion June 16. Moderated by Southern Cross Creative’s Brett Voss, Hendricks and Pullin began with campaign speeches, followed by an engaging question-and-answer session.

Following the campaign speeches, Hendricks answered questions regarding why he would be willing to take a pay cut to take on considerable more responsibilities as the county sheriff and how he would increase manpower productivity with the present budget. On the other hand, Pullin explained why he has not already implemented his campaign ideas as Chief Deputy and the practicality of developing a reserve program with the current climate surrounding law enforcement.

To wrap things up, Voss asked both candidates if they could work together in the future regardless of the outcome of the race. To listen to what both candidates had to say, watch the video presented by Southern Cross Creative on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/429852710

Although the first statewide election during the pandemic will likely be a low-turnout affair, the primary runoffs will look different from any Texas election in the past 100 years.

In one attempt to make voting in the runoffs safer, voters will have more days to go to the polls in person as Gov. Abbott doubled the usually truncated early voting period for runoff elections.

Although Gov. Abbott previously said the government could not order individuals to wear masks, he changed course with last Thursday's mask order.

"It requires all Texans to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth in public spaces in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases, with few exceptions," Abbott said. “We are now at a point where the virus is spreading so fast, there is little margin for error."

Mask order violators can be fined up to $250, but voting tops the list of exceptions, which also includes people who have a medical condition or disability, who are exercising outdoors, or who are participating in a religious service.

Texans voting in person will likely be met with many of the precautions that have become customary at businesses and grocery stores, including six-foot distance markers and plastic shields at check-in stations with poll workers offering masks and hand sanitizer.

But poll workers cannot require temperature checks, and they can’t ask voters whether they have experienced symptoms related to COVID-19. And most importantly, voters who show up with symptoms can’t be turned away.

"Across the state, election boards have increased the number of early voting days to accommodate the public's awareness of social distancing," Jackson said. "I sincerely hope people will take advantage of this to increase the typical low turnout for a runoff election.

"Our Sheriff's race is very important, so the voting public needs to register their choice of candidates by voting."

Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS

©2020 Southern Cross Creative, LLP. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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