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Elections pioneer DeBeauvoir to retire

TRAVIS COUNTY CLERK

Chuck Lindell

Austin American-Statesman USA TODAY NETWORK

After 35 years of running elections and taking care of real estate and court records, Travis County Clerk Dana De-Beauvoir will step down from office soon to begin what she expects to be an active retirement.

DeBeauvoir, who was a national leader in the shift toward digital voting, began informing local officials about her decision Thursday evening.

“It’s time,” she told the American-Statesman, adding that she had been preparing to run for reelection next year when she realized that at age 67 there were other passions she hoped to pursue, including a return engage-

See CLERK, Page 4A

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, shown on Election Day on Nov. 2, will leave office early after 35 years as a county official.

JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

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ment as an international elections observer — fulfilling work she had to abandon in the late 1990s as the demands of her county job grew.

In the end, the lure of future challenges outweighed continuing a job she has loved for more than half her life.

“I was 31 when I took office. I don’t think age is much of anything. I’m happy and healthy; I still have plenty energy,” DeBeauvoir said. “But I’m ready to have the next new, younger generation take over.”

With her current four-year term running through 2022, DeBeauvoir expects to retire at the end of December or end of January — the wild card being a soon-tobe scheduled special election to replace Greg Casar, who is leaving the Austin City Council to run for Congress. That election is expected to be held in January.

In the meantime, DeBeauvoir said she will recommend that county commissioners name Adana Hess, her chief deputy, as interim county clerk. A special election will not be held to fill the vacancy, she said.

In the mid-1980s, DeBeauvoir was rising through the ranks of the county tax office — her last job there was division director for property tax collections under Tax Assessor/Collector Bill Aleshire — when she decided to put to use her new master’s degree, and its focus on automation, from the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs.

DeBeauvoir ran for county clerk, promising to address the office’s yearlong backlog in deed records and the lack of a system to search for civil and criminal case records. Aleshire ran for county judge. Both won.

“I was recruited to run by the title companies, who were at their wit’s end,” unable to get timely information on property ownership, DeBeauvoir said.

It took about 16 months to address the deed and court records problems, she said, and the experience solidified her commitment to streamlining government operations.

In addition to property deeds and court records, De-Beauvoir’s office tackles the important jobs of running elections, issuing marriage licenses and overseeing probate matters. It even registers livestock brands.

Vanguard of voting technology

Since taking office, DeBeauvoir has overseen election changes from a punch card system to an optical scanner system, both of which produced consistently late results, to electronic voting — the machines with wheels that voters spun to make selections — to the current hybrid of electronic voting that creates paper ballots.

She was among the first elections administrators in the nation to install electronic voting machines after Congress allocated billions of dollars to buy digital voting machines after the troublesome recount of paper ballots in Florida in the 2000 presidential election.

DeBeauvoir, a Democrat, has faced criticism from Republicans for her handling of some election matters, including complaints in 2020 that her policies denied poll watchers an adequate opportunity to observe vote counting. Facing a threatened lawsuit, she agreed last year to ensure access for the watchers, who typically represent political parties or candidates.

Also in 2020, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order limiting counties to one mail-in ballot drop-off site, saying it was a necessary ballot security measure. DeBeauvoir and her counterpart in Harris County were forced to close drive-in sites opened as a convenience that improved safety during the pandemic.

Same-sex marriage One of her favorite memories of her time in office is the day in 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court removed the legal impediments to same-sex marriage. “We did 310 marriage licenses. That was a pretty great day,” she said.

DeBeauvoir also provided the state’s first legally issued same-sex marriage license four months earlier — as ordered by then-District Judge David Wahlberg, who ruled that the Texas ban on same-sex marriage violated the rights to equal and fair treatment under the law for Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant, particularly after Goodfriend had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Attorney General Ken Paxton sued to overturn the marriage as a violation of state law and an overreach by the judge.

Wahlberg would later play a bigger role in DeBeauvoir’s life.

DeBeauvoir’s ex-husband, dentist Ben Smithers, died in 2018 after a heart attack. They had known each other for 30 years and were married for 15 of them. “I loved him very much, and when he died, I thought my life was over,” she said.

Wahlberg offered to take her sailing, something she had enjoyed doing with Smithers, and their friendship grew. “I realized what a kind and sweet person he was. He was just a gentle giant. I’m kind of smitten with him,” DeBeauvoir said.

With her personal life in order, DeBeauvoir said she is ready to focus on what’s next, including work in the field of election ethics in the United States and support for elections internationally.

In 1994, while serving as a United Nations elections observer in South Africa, a car bomb exploded nearby, showering her with shattered glass and filling the room with smoke. It was that country’s first election in which all races were allowed to vote, and the bomb set by white extremists killed 10 people.

The experience didn’t dissuade DeBeauvoir from taking election monitoring assignments in Bosnia, Bangladesh and Kosovo from 1995-99. “It made me angry that anybody would try to do that to an election,” she said.

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