Between now and July 14, area voters in Texas House District 148 likely will hear more about the differences between Anna Eastman and Penny Morales-Shaw than their similarities.
But the two Democrats, pitted against each other in a delayed runoff from the March 3 primary, are in agreement on at least one issue. Both said voting should be easier and more accessible than it is now and that all Texans should be allowed to vote by mail, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic that caused the runoff date to be pushed back by two months.
“We want to get away from our historical reputation of voter suppression,” Morales-Shaw said. “I think that would go a long way toward that.”
Said Eastman, the incumbent in the local seat of the Texas House of Representatives: “I feel like it should be easier for people to vote. I think people should be allowed to vote by mail. … People are going to be afraid to go out.”
Whether all Texas citizens should be allowed to vote by mail in July, and in November for the general election, is a hotly contested debate between Democrats and Republicans and also a matter being settled by the court system. As it stands, Texas voters can request mail ballots only if they are age 65 or older, have a disability, are incarcerated but eligible to vote or if they will be out of their home county on Election Day or during early voting.
But a May ruling by the Texas Supreme Court left open the possibility for expanded mail-in voting. Douglas Ray, a special assistant to Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, said the court ruled that a lack of immunity to COVID-19 cannot be the only reason voters apply for a ballot by mail, but it can be a factor in voters’ individual determinations about whether in-person voting would cause a likelihood of injury to their health.
If a voter checks the disability box on a ballot-by-mail application, interim Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said his office does not have the authority or ability to verify that claim and must furnish the voter with a ballot as requested.
Applications for mail-in ballots must be received by Hollins’ office no later than July 2 in order to be processed.
“It basically leaves it up to the voter to decide,” Ray said of the Texas Supreme Court ruling.
There also is an ongoing federal case about whether Texas’ existing laws for mail-in voting are unconstitutional on the grounds of age discrimination. U.S. District Judge Fred Biery ruled that all Texas voters qualify for ballots by mail during the pandemic, but that order was subsequently blocked by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Texas Democratic Party has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to lift the stay and allow Biery’s ruling to stand.
According to Hollins, who was appointed to replace Diane Trautman on June 1 after Trautman resigned for personal reasons, Harris County voters already have demonstrated an increased desire to vote by mail. He said the county had received nearly 85,000 ballot-by-mail applications as of June 11, an increase of roughly 25 percent from the March primary. The majority of those applications are for the November election and not the July runoff, according to Michael Winn, Harris County’s administer of elections.
Eastman said that as of Monday, however, the county already had received 862 completed mail ballots for her runoff against Morales-Shaw, after 650 people voted by mail in the March primary.
“We are encouraging every eligible voter to vote by mail as one of the safest methods of voting,” Hollins said. “We are operating within the bounds of the law and making sure voters know they must make their own health determinations to be eligible.”
Hollins said he and his staff also are preparing to make in-person voting as safe and convenient as possible in July and November. On Monday he unveiled S.A.F.E., a set of 23 initiatives aimed at making the elections “safe, secure, accessible, fair and efficient.”
Among the initiatives are providing poll workers with personal protective equipment and disinfecting products, spacing voting booths at least 6 feet apart to ensure social distancing and requiring voters to use finger covers to minimize contact with voting equipment. Hollins said Harris County plans to utilize curbside voting and is exploring the possibility of drive-through voting.
A complete list of S.A.F.E. initiatives can be found online at HarrisVotes.com.
The county plans to have 57 early voting locations and 112 polling places on Election Day. The duration of early voting has been expanded as it will start June 29, take a break on July 3-4 and continue through July 10.
“We certainly are in uncharted territory,” Hollins said. “… We have quite a hill to climb, but we’re up to the task.”