Dana DeBeauvoir retires as Travis County clerk after 36 years on the job
After nearly 40 years spent in service of county government, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir is ready to take on her next adventure: retirement.
DeBeauvoir has been in charge of elections and other crucial administrative functions in Travis County since she ran her first campaign back in 1986, long before the county had computers to help tally election results.
The clerk position handles everything from court records to elections to marriage licenses. DeBeauvoir issued the first same-sex marriage license in the State of Texas, and her office issued more than 300 licenses the day the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.
DeBeauvoir announced her intention to retire last November, telling KUT she struggled with it.
"What really kind of tipped me over the edge is I'd really like to do international elections work and do some work nationally on elections, on audits and elections ethics," she said.
Friday is DeBeauvoir's last day as Travis County clerk.
This conversation with DeBeauvoir has been edited lightly for clarity:
KUT: What have you found the most challenging about the job through the years?
It wouldn't be the first thing you would think of and that is bringing in modern management and automation into the clerk's office, the technology part was quite the savior. We were able to handle a lot more records processing with the same number of people in the same number of hours and get work done a lot more quickly. So actually, I was able to correct the indexing and the other legal records that were backlogged within about a year and a half so that that was easier than I thought.
But like almost everybody else back in the late '80s who got into the job of conducting elections, most of us just fell into it. I did not know very much about elections when I when I took this job, and nobody really thought much about elections until the year 2000, Bush v. Gore, that famous election. And with that election, suddenly the full spotlight was turned on. You know, how you conduct an election and how you tally votes and how you end up with final results.
That was a very good thing for the nation, because I think a lot of voters didn't think about it much and they thought, 'Oh, well, it just magically happens that I show up and vote and there's my ballot for my neighborhood, you know, available at the polling place and people are there' and they didn't give much thought as to how that all came about. And that particular year, 2000, made it very clear to everyone that there was a lot going on behind the scenes. So it was really that part of the county clerk world that changed the most, and that was the most surprising thing.
KUT: Do you have a favorite part of running an election?
I really do and it's the people part of the job. I love going in the polling places and visiting with the election judges who are our front-line defenders of democracy. Hearing what kind of day they're having, you know, what can we do better next time to make their jobs go a little easier. And then, of course, there's election night, where all the ballot boxes are being driven into the central counting station and you get to talk to the election judges about how the end of their very long day feels. And, you know, did they have any questions or concerns? And that's probably the most exciting thing.
At a couple of minutes after 7 p.m., we issue the early voting results, and so all the candidates are getting their first peek at what the lay of the land is going to look like for them on election night. And then we've always set a goal of trying to have election results completed by the 10 p.m. news broadcast because that's what voters want. And we've pretty much been able to accomplish that since we've been given some new tools with electronic support for election.
We're a really big county and we need to have that kind of electronic support, and we now have a system that not only helps us get the job done, but it also offers voters a paper trail so that we have a hard document, a piece of evidence to audit against. So my favorite part is really Election Day and election night.
KUT: You've laid out pretty clearly for us how the job has changed since you started. Would you classify that as good change or bad change?
Oh no, it's all, most definitely, very good progress. We've built a lot of better procedures and better ways for voters to feel secure and confident in their election and that's only going to get better over time. This trend is going to continue, so for voters who are concerned that elections aren't safe, you can really put your mind at ease because we now have electronic with paper trail. We have really well-trained judges, very well-documented procedures for the public to see, for voters to see and for anybody who's watching over the election.
And most counties in most states take that very seriously now, and election judges are much better supported because their procedures are all in writing at pretty much any polling place you go into any place in the United States.
KUT: You mentioned the importance of the 2000 election, and in the wake of the 2020 election, a lot of election administrators across the country say they feel like they're under a new kind of scrutiny that's making their jobs harder. Do you feel like the work that you do has gotten harder, or at least more scrutinized, in recent years?
The election judges are correct. They have been subject to more scrutiny, and there's nothing wrong with that, but the abuse that some of them have suffered is just unacceptable. These folks are doing this wonderful job serving their communities, and there's just no reason, no good reason why they should be treated with anything less than full respect and appreciation.
So I hope that negativity that some people have brought into the polling place will end and that we will treat them with the affection and the respect that they so much deserve.
KUT: Any advice you'd give to the election workers out there?
Well, election workers — as well as voters — I think we should operate the polling places under the golden rule: Treat everybody the way you would expect to be treated. And if everybody behaves that way in the polling place, we will have respectful, civil, you know, smooth-flowing elections for everyone.
KUT: What made you decide to leave the clerk's office now?
Well, it's very personal. I am, as we had mentioned, I've spent almost 40 years in county government and it has been a love affair. But I had a personal turn in my life about three and a half years ago. My husband died and I loved him dearly, and I thought my life was over when he was gone.
But an old friend of mine came back into my life a couple of years ago and offered to take me sailing. And after we had been sailing together for a couple of months, we looked at each other and we said, 'What's happening between us?' And so late in life, I have found love with this very wonderful man. And I just I never thought that would happen again. I'm incredibly lucky and as I get older, I don't want to miss this time with him. We've adopted two dogs and so I'm looking forward to a more personal expenditure of my time.
And I would really like to return to the opportunity to do international election observation. After the 2000 election, the Help America Vote Act made it necessary for me to take care of all of the jurisdictions here in Travis County, all the cities and schools. And I just didn't have the time to be going overseas and looking at other countries' elections. I had to stay here. So I hope I will get to stay in elections and pick up the job doing international elections that I found so inspiring.