Pandemic snags advocates’ petition to make Jeff Davis a “wet” county

JEFF DAVIS COUNTY – Another attempt to unify Jeff Davis County’s liquor laws and turn all four precincts “wet” may be doomed, this time due to a lack of signatures collected during the pandemic. The Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce said they were unable to collect the signatures required to get on the November ballot because of coronavirus, but the group is holding out hope that the state will acknowledge the challenge of collecting signatures during a pandemic and relax its rules.

In normal times, groups must collect 35% of the total voters from the last gubernatorial election — coming out to 408 signatures this year. There’s a 60-day window between the application being filed and the signatures being due.

According to Melissa Henderson, executive director for the Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce, in reality, “I actually had about 12 days. We hustled as long as we could.” The group was able to collect somewhere around 350 signatures of registered Jeff Davis County voters, but their efforts were severely hampered when the county, like many in the area, declared a disaster and went into a stay-at-home order. The threat of viral spread meant door-to-door petitioning could be dangerous, leaving the chamber with few options to collect the rest of their signatures.

This is not the first time the chamber has fought to open up Jeff Davis County for more liquor sales. The same changes were unsuccessfully petitioned for in 2016 and 2015.

The county’s precincts have long had disparate rules about selling and serving alcohol. In Precinct 1, the only way to sell alcohol is if you’re a restaurant where alcohol can be consumed on site, but cannot make up more than 49% of the restaurant’s sales. The local dollar store, whose chain often sells beer and wine in its shops, is prohibited from selling because it falls in Precinct 1.

Nearby businesses in Precinct 2 are “partial wet,” so they can sell alcohol, but not for onsite consumption. The precinct line between 1 and 2 is at the south wall of Stone Village Market. Everything north of Stone Village can only do consumer-to-consumer sales, not onsite sales. Everything south of the market on State Street has to be a restaurant.

Meanwhile Precinct 3 is completely dry, while Precinct 4, home to Valentine, is completely wet.

The petition was turned over to the county clerk, and Henderson is expecting a rejection. “Once I get that letter saying I didn’t have enough signatures, then we’ll be looking at alternatives to file based on what’s happening with other cities doing similar things,” Henderson said. “The coronavirus has created all kinds of new lawsuits.”

Henderson pointed to recent lawsuits in other states around the country that are pressing government officials to relax rules for ballot measures due to the interference of coronavirus.

Some states have chosen to allow digital signatures, while others have stopped requiring the signature collector to witness every signature. Last week, a U.S. district judge ordered Ohio to accept electronic signatures for petitions and to extend the signature deadline an additional 30 days.

Henderson is hopeful that Texas will make an exception, and the chamber of commerce plans to seek legal help to advocate for their cause.