With proclamation, Abbott urges local election delay

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is urging local government entities to delay their upcoming May 2 elections until November in response to the mounting public health threat posed by the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19.

The governor made the urgent plea via a proclamation issued Wednesday that announced the waiver of certain statutes of the Texas Election Code and Texas Water Code.

“I strongly encourage local election officials to take advantage of these waivers and postpone their elections until November,” Abbott said via a news release.

“Right now, the state’s focus is responding to COVID-19 — including social distancing and avoiding large gatherings. By delaying this election, our local election officials can assist in that effort,” he said.

Abbott discussed the topic of local elections during a news conference held Tuesday after he spoke with CEOs from hospitals across the state. “We are still evaluating that and we know we need to make a decision very swiftly,” Abbott said in that Tuesday news conference.

“One thing that we are looking at, and that is whether or not the governor has the authority to make a decision on that,” he said, adding that his office was continuing to determine the lengths of his legal authority regarding elections.

As it happens, the governor does not have the authority to cancel local elections, which are called by each individual governing board, such as a city council, school board of trustees, or water utility district. However, his March 13 declaration of a statewide disaster empowers Abbott to temporarily alter or waive state laws, he said.

“I don’t have the authority to alter municipal ordinances or waive them, etc. … So this is going to be up to the municipalities to make their own decisions,” Abbott said.

It’s those laws that are affected by the proclamation, including statutes that mandate the deadlines for canceling or postponing an election and those that require water districts to hold May elections. It also affects those statutes that require county elections departments to furnish governing entities with elections services, such as equipment, ballots and staffing.

“Only political subdivisions have authority to postpone these elections, but the Governor’s suspensions allow political subdivisions to postpone the elections and strongly encourages them to do so,” the governor’s proclamation announcement stated.

Wednesday’s proclamation came as just another example of the fast-paced decisions being made by leaders from the local, to the state and federal level as the country continues to grapple with the equally fast-moving spread of COVID-19.

Already, the number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Texas has doubled since Abbott declared a statewide disaster Friday.

In a news conference held Wednesday afternoon, the governor provided updated statistics, saying that 83 people across 23 counties have tested positive thus far, and three people have died, succumbing to the infection. More than 1,900 additional people are being monitored for COVID-19, Abbott said.

The number of cases confirmed Wednesday represents a nearly 33% increase from Tuesday’s tally of 64. Those numbers will continue to rise as more testing becomes available.

State leaders have come under fire, however, for the limited availability of those kits. The Rio Grande Valley had not received any test kits until last Thursday, according to Hidalgo County Health Director Eddie Olivarez.

Abbott said the state hopes to significantly ramp up its testing capacity to 15,000 to 20,000 tests per week, though, he reiterated that testing would be limited to those who meet a strict criteria, including those who have traveled to affected areas, are showing symptoms, and who are at high risk of complications from the virus.