Austin at Large: The Front Lines of Democracy
As voting’s become a battlefield, Dana DeBeauvoir has stood up for all of our rights
I've never covered an election in Travis County that Dana DeBeauvoir hasn't run; the county clerk, herself among the longest-serving local elected officials in Texas, would have appeared on the Democratic primary ballot for the 10th time next March. But she's not going to. "The final straw was when I got shingles on the right side of my face on Election Day," she told me with a laugh earlier this week. She laughs about many things, including the way she's worn her hair for much of her career. "Fortunately, my hair covers that side of my face. But it hurt."
It's hardly the first, or the worst, misfortune to befall a woman who, until Harris County's turn in the voting rights spotlight in 2020, bore the brunt of decades of criticism of how Texas conducted elections. But it was a sign. "I realized the filing period was less than two weeks away" from this past E-Day, DeBeauvoir said, "and I had intended to run down on [this past] Saturday and file, but the whole thing seemed so ... daunting. So I thought it was a very good time" to announce her retirement from the office she's held since 1986. She's committed to stay on to run the special election in late January to fill the unexpired term of Council Member Greg Casar, now running for Congress. On January 28, she'll turn 68 and be unemployed. Then it's up to us to carry on. "I have to get over the guilt of being the general leaving the battlefield," she said, "and getting somebody competent to take over, and not knowing what's in store for me in the future. It's scary, so I held on until the very last minute. ... I'm still going through this process myself; it's a job I've loved so much, and I'm grateful to the people of Travis County for hiring me through the ballot. It's been a great ride."
It's a Different Job Now
For some sense of how much has changed during DeBeauvoir's tenure as county clerk, in my first election here as a cub reporter – when she was reelected the first time, in 1990 – I was a stringer for the defunct Dallas Times-Herald, working alongside the late Molly Ivins and Ross Ramsey, who would go on to co-found The Texas Tribune nearly two decades later. Back then, our business was still only vaguely computerized, as were our elections; we voted by marking paper ballots with graphite pencils like taking a test, which were dropped into physical boxes that needed to be gathered up when the polls closed and deposited, generally, in the basement of the old municipal auditorium, where hordes of election workers and venerable old hunks of machinery tallied and double- and triple-checked the results well into the wee hours.
The lengthy ballot tabulation process prompted polite but persistent grumbling from campaigns and office holders, to which DeBeauvoir responded with equally persistent advocacy for more resources and improved technologies. After the uncertainties of the 2000 election played out right in the streets of Travis County, the federal Help America Vote Act in 2002 made DeBeauvoir's cause into the nation's; she would soon deploy the county's first electronic voting machines, the eSlate model produced by Austin-based Hart InterCivic, part of a corporate family that had printed Texas ballots for nearly a century.
DeBeauvoir was not herself a particularly tech-savvy type, and she also oversaw the keeping of other Travis County records, from marriage licenses to steer brands, in a semi-automated fashion. She understood that, all other things being equal, electronic voting would be more efficient and accurate than prior practice and was a zealous evangelist for its adoption. However, as you may recall, it wasn't long before questions about the integrity of "black box voting" began to emerge, primarily on the left, where activists all but convinced themselves that President George W. Bush would, or did, get himself reelected by exploiting the flaws in voting machines. After a while, DeBeauvoir came to believe the academics working on election security had a point and that none of the companies in the sector had the security and auditability requirements (including a voter-verifiable paper trail) that the task demanded.
That led to a years-long collaboration with many of her most pointed critics to produce the STAR Vote platform (Secure, Transparent, Auditable, Reliable). It proved to be the one that got away; the companies refused to build it, the public funds weren't forthcoming, and for now it remains a hypothetical best-case solution. But the effort was not fruitless. "It's a highly technical job now, with testing and auditing, and I hope STAR Vote pushed us down the road."
Her last years in office have also included widowhood and the death of DeBeauvoir's mother, placing into perspective her own childhood as a survivor of abuse. From an early age, she's stood up to bullies, now including the MAGAmuffins and conspiracists who've taken the black-box baton and run for the rightmost lane of the track. "People have asked: Was it the ugly people at the polling places? The dumb attorney general? Were they part of my decision to leave?" She pauses to let her laughter die away; she's 100% serious now. "Absolutely not." She feels the office is prepared but will still need a leader with "competence and very good judgment and a lot of smarts and communication skills. I hope we will elect someone with all of that." She believes strongly that elections should be run by an independent officeholder and not an administrator who can "be threatened and fired at the drop of a hat," and that the clerk should also take over voter registration from the assessor's office where people used to pay their poll taxes. "There is dysfunction in that system, and of course a history of racism. I'd like to see that broken by the next county clerk."