Naked City

No More Produce 'n' Politics

It appears that the HEB grocery chain will indeed pull out of Travis County's early voting system, probably before the fall elections. Such a pullout, which County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir has said would "gut" the program, was precipitated at least in part by the lawsuit filed last year by Independent Texans, a group led by campaign reform activist and City Council candidate Linda Curtis (see "Naked City: HEB Shelving Early Voting?" Dec. 21, 2001). Independent Texans and the ACLU, which had filed on IT's behalf, recently dropped the suit, which sought to force HEB to allow petitioning on the store's premises. Curtis maintained that because HEB hosts early voting, it is a community meeting site and must also allow petitioning. HEB "outmaneuvered" her organization, she added, by getting the court venue moved to Bexar County. (In the past few months, Curtis has petitioned for both the Austin Fair Elections Act and Council Member Beverly Griffith's attempts to bust term limits; she was paid for the latter activity.)

"By the time we got set up in the other county, the suit was technically moot," she said. "By the time we could get [a trial] down there, we were succeeding enough in our [Fair Elections Act] petition drive that we didn't need HEB." Despite this seeming contradiction, Curtis believes Independent Texans "just got lucky" due to the mild winter weather, which made signature-gathering easier. "Without the cooperation of local stores," said Curtis, "it forces candidates and ballot measure supporters to run paid drives [rather than all-volunteer ones]."

Curtis says Independent Texans is asking people to "call HEB during early voting and urge them to set up early voting sites again, and let them know that during the early voting period they'll be shopping at Albertsons and Randalls."

HEB spokesperson Kate Brown said the lawsuit was "a factor, but not the only reason" behind her company's decision. HEB opposes petitioning and any other form of solicitation on its property, and had previously considered dropping early voting as a way to undercut Curtis' argument, in case she prevailed in court. However, Brown says HEB has decided at the corporate level that its stores can't handle the voting because the traffic volume at stores has increased over the past year, and space is limited. "Our stores are just not set up to accommodate it," she said. Furthermore, "In the last few years, the political climate has been changing a lot. We've never had a problem with candidates respecting the distance markers, but recently, candidates have been campaigning in the stores." That, of course, would be a violation of the law. HEB is looking for other ways to help the county, Brown said, "but things that don't affect operations."

DeBeauvoir was more direct in assigning blame -- "It's because of the lawsuit" -- and expressed concern that HEB's decision could negatively affect voters in three areas near HEBs (at East Seventh, Congress & Oltorf, and Ed Bluestein & Springdale). No alternative voting sites are available in those heavily minority-populated areas, she said. DeBeauvoir "has sympathy" for HEB's position, but disagrees with Curtis that early voting is equivalent to solicitation. "It's passive. I wish the suit hadn't been dropped. I think the court would have upheld HEB's position."

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