A Month-by-Month Guide to Election 2020 Madness
From local policy to the national election, we just want you to vote, OK?
Your friendly neighborhood Chronicle News desk has been gearing up for Election 2020 since the day after the 2016 trainwreck. Trust us – if we could, we would be willing to set aside horse-race coverage and candidate interviews and endorsements and election-night returns in favor of more truly important stories shaping our community. But there aren't any. Just think back to our Top 10 stories from last year – the ones we said all had in common that they weren't over yet? At least nine of them will couple up directly with this year's already-spinning election cycles, throwing sparks all around. (We guess even the zebra mussels could have an impact at the ballot box.) So here's your guide to the festivities – a little almanac or handbook, you could say, to help you grow a nice tasty crop of power to the people, or gather up the spice you need to ingest to see the future and navigate through foldspace. (The new Dune movie release date is Dec. 18! We're excited.)
In Texas, which is worse-than-average among the states at helping its people vote, you must be registered to vote at your current address 30 days in advance of any election date. That means before Feb. 3 for the March primary, so if you've moved since you last voted – as often happens in a city full of students and renters, especially with the new year – don't put it off. You cannot register to vote online in Texas – the form requires an actual, not an electronic, signature. The Texas Democratic Party just filed suit against the state this week to challenge this; state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, former vice chair of the House Elections Committee, has tried several times to change this law.
As with the oxygen masks on airplanes, you should complete your own voter registration before assisting others. Again, because this is Texas, there are obstacles to be cleared to become a volunteer deputy registrar who can hand out, collect, and help people complete their forms. The one-hour required training is offered by the Travis County Tax Office, typically on Saturdays at various locations; check them out on Facebook for the most current info. (Why the tax office, and not the county clerk, who handles most every other election task? Because there used to be a poll tax, as you hopefully learned about in school under "Jim Crow.")
Also, now you can request to vote by mail in the primary election; if you're over 65 or disabled, you can do so once for all the elections in 2020. (Otherwise, you have to attest that you won't be in your county of residence to vote in person, including during early voting, for each election in question.) Campaigns and parties devote more energy than you might expect to "chasing" vote-by-mail ballots, so if you're eligible and might not vote otherwise, you can expect to hear from them. Is that scammy? GOP "voter fraud!" conspiracists like to say so, although the most blatant recent example, a 2018 U.S. House race in North Carolina, was perpetrated by their own side. Otherwise, every vote counts – remember, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, survived her 2010 reelection race by four (4) votes. She may be the next speaker!
As you winnow your way through the ballot, you can be guided by January's required campaign finance filing. For state and county races, Jan. 15 is the reporting deadline for money raised and spent in the latter half of 2019; federal filers have until Jan. 31 to file their fourth-quarter reports. Reporting deadlines begin to splinter from here on out, depending on the type of race, filer (candidate or committee), and contribution or expenditure; this is an important milestone to see who is and isn't running a serious campaign.
You can also congratulate now a few local officeholders who are unopposed in either the primary or general election this year – state Rep. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin; District Judges Rhonda Hurley, Jan Soifer, Tamara Needles, and Brad Urrutia; future District Judge Aurora Martinez Jones (incumbent Darlene Byrne is seeking to move up); County Court-at-Law Judges Carlos Barrera and Kim Williams; Constables Stacy Suits, George Morales, and Carlos Lopez; and Travis County party chairs Dyana Limon-Mercado (Dem) and Matt Mackowiak (GOP). Their work is done, right?
Early voting in the Texas primaries runs from Feb. 18 through Feb. 28. Whether and when you've voted (although not which way or for whom, of course) is a public record with your name on it. Everybody knows. It's in the very valuable, yet also widely shared, voter files used by candidates to find you and hunt you down. As such, campaigns will frantically goad you to the polls throughout early voting, and they will stop calling, texting, and mailing you once you vote. Is that an incentive?
The presidential primary is a one-and-done thing, with convention delegates allocated between the top vote-getters, but the numerous other Dem and GOP primary races are subject to run-off if nobody wins a majority. That run-off won't happen until the end of May, and for many Texans, there's another local election cycle in between! The deadline to call an election, or to file for a place on the ballot, for the May 2 uniform election date is Feb. 14. We'll come back to this, but for those who are rarin' to recall Austin Mayor Steve Adler and other members of the City Council as soon as possible, time is running short to get those signatures.
Texas doesn't register voters by party, so you can choose either primary, but you can't switch to the other for the run-off. The Chronicle, and other responsible media, will have our election endorsements ready for you before early voting starts, but there are a lot of races, and some outlets take their time. (The Statesman, which made a big deal in May 2016 of ceasing to endorse candidates – between that year's primary and run-off! – announced in December it would reverse course for 2020.)
There are more campaign finance deadlines in February – the 30-day and 8-day reports for state and county races are due Feb. 3 and 24, respectively. For federal races (president, U.S. Senate, U.S. Congress) expenditures get reported much more frequently as the primary approaches – 24-hour disclosure of TV and radio ad buys (beginning Feb. 2) and of independent expenditures (IEs) by political action committees (beginning Feb. 13), and 48-hour disclosure of spending by candidates themselves (also after Feb. 13). You can also sharpen your sense of ethical smell on Feb. 12, when personal financial statements are due from any Texas state or local candidate on the ballot in 2020.
The big day is March 3, Super Tuesday, where Texans join 13 other states (and Democrats Abroad!) in voicing their presidential choice, along with their picks in every other partisan race all the way down to constable. (Some states wait until much later to do their down-ballot primaries, but not Texas.) This will end the cycle for races with only two candidates and no opposition in November, as happens fairly regularly in a polarized county like Travis. Incumbent District Judges Julie Kocurek and Tim Sulak have minor opposition, but their colleague David Wahlberg faces a spirited challenge, as does Constable Adan Ballesteros. Two other civil court seats with retiring incumbents (one D, one R) will be decided on March 3.
Everybody else on the ballot either faces a general election opponent or a potential run-off in May, or perhaps both. Who will make the cut for the run-off? In a close race, this might not be decided until the parties canvass their votes March 12 (local/county races) or March 15 (statewide races). Late ballots of different kinds trickle in before those dates from mail voters, overseas and military voters, those who cast provisional ballots, and people who got too sick to vote right before the election (it happens). The last day for candidates to withdraw from the run-off is March 18.
All parties in Texas – D's and R's but also Libertarians and Greens – have their county and district conventions on March 21. The latter two will still be deciding their November nominees at this point; for Teams Red and Blue, it's more of an activist pursuit to build excitement, shape the platform, and start the race to get picked to go to the national conventions over the summer.
It's kind of a slow month, since the primary run-offs aren't until the end of May, unless you're in Williamson County, where the aforementioned May 2 local elections will be heating up in Round Rock, Cedar Park, and Georgetown. Also facing the voters will be school trustees in the Pflugerville, Lake Travis, San Marcos, and Hays districts, the last of these also including a planned bond election. Early voting is April 20-28. For those of you not partaking, you do have one major civic task with future electoral ramifications – completing Census 2020, which will inform 2021 redistricting and all races going forward from there. The official census day is April 1; if you haven't turned your form in by then, people will start coming to look for you.
After the ballots are counted on May 2, it's a headlong rush toward the May 26 primary run-off, which will almost certainly include the GOP contests for U.S. House District 17, state House Districts 45 and 47, and perhaps State Board of Education District 5, all including parts of Travis County. On the Dem side will likely be races for U.S. Senate, U.S. House Districts 10 and 31, and Travis County district attorney, county attorney, and County Court at Law No. 4 – the last two of those will probably end at this point, as no GOP candidates have filed. Early voting for the run-off is May 18-22. The Republican Party of Texas' state convention will be held in Houston May 14-16.
Everybody gets lazy and biffs off for the summer and forgets about politics, unless they're Democratic activists heading to the state convention in San Antonio June 4-6 and/or the national convention in Milwaukee July 13-16. The GOP national event in Charlotte isn't until weeks later at the end of August – an eternity from now in Trump Time.
Don't get too lazy, though, because before you know it, it's time to start teeing up the November 2020 local elections! These used to be a rarity around here – while San Marcos has for years held city elections in November (when students and faculty are around), most cities and school districts clung to the May date. Austin changed its city elections via charter amendment in 2012, along with the move to a 10-1 district council. Other jurisdictions had already done so, thanks to 2011 legislation encouraging the move, including the cities of Bastrop, Buda, and Pflugerville; the Austin, Bastrop, Leander, Round Rock, and Del Valle school boards; and the Austin Community College board.
All of those places will have elections in November, including five Austin City Council races. Some candidates in those contests have already announced and filed the paperwork begun raising money, but the actual filing period is July 18-Aug. 17. One of the five Council incumbents – Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza – hopes to have won the county attorney race by then; four others (Greg Casar, Jimmy Flannigan, Leslie Pool, Alison Alter) are eligible to run again, and Alter already has an opponent. Because of the census, Austin has to redistrict in 2021 before the next round of elections in November 2022. At that point, Adler, Pio Renteria, Ann Kitchen, Kathie Tovo, and should they win re-election this year, Casar and Pool, will all be term-limited unless they collect signatures allowing them to run again. So, lots of turnover just around the corner.
Also of relevance to Austin voters this summer will be the August deadline to call special elections for the November ballot, such as the widely expected 2020 Project Connect mobility bond, the city's third attempt at creating some sort of big-city transit system, after failures in 2000 and 2014. (The 2000 measure only lost by 1,200 votes! Every vote counts; don't just take Donna Howard's word for it. Imagine if we were now entering our second decade with rail transit.)
Aug. 24 is the deadline by which cities and counties, including Austin and Travis, need to call tax ratification elections if they want to seek voter approval to go beyond the 3.5% revenue caps imposed upon them last year by the Texas Legislature. That's later than the normal deadline for calling a November special election, but it's several weeks before jurisdictions would typically approve their upcoming budgets, and the new law requires budget adoption before calling a TRE. So that changes the 2020 calendar somewhat, perhaps leading to a trimming of City Hall's accustomed monthlong summer break.
After Labor Day
Conventional wisdom holds that all of this election action will have gone down before most voters actually tune into the races. That's probably not going to be true in 2020, where Texas is expecting record-breaking turnout once early voting for the general election begins Oct. 19. The concerted effort to turn Texas blue or at least bluer – not just in the Electoral College, but in Congress and especially in the state Legislature – will mean much more activity around these parts than has been seen in a very long time. You'll be implored to get out your vote and give up your money until the last vote is cast Nov. 3; to track that activity, the same reporting deadlines that accelerated during the primary will start increasing in tempo throughout October. The last federal campaign finance filing deadline before the election is Oct. 22; the last state deadline (the 8-day report) is Oct. 26. Federal campaigns have to produce a post-election filing by December 3; state races have until the new year, although legislative campaigns have to stop raising money Dec. 12 in the lead-up to the next Lege session, which will start in January 2021.