To help ensure that her supporters cast a vote for her, Anna Eastman’s election campaigns have historically provided ballot-by-mail applications to potential constituents who are at least 65 years old. That demographic is among the groups allowed to request absentee ballots in Texas, which requires most of its citizens to vote in person.
Two weeks ago, though, Eastman said she sent vote-by-mail applications to every voter in her campaign database. The state representative for District 148 said she did so after receiving an advisory from the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, which indicated that absentee balloting could be expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic based on language in the Texas Election Code.
“We thought that was something we should do,” Eastman said.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton disagrees, and he’s fighting a push by voting rights advocates and Democrats such as Eastman to allow for expanded voting by mail in upcoming elections. Eastman is facing Penny Morales Shaw in a Democratic primary runoff that was postponed from May until July 14 because of the pandemic, and a general election is set for November.
Paxton, a Republican, appealed a temporary injunction issued in April by a Travis County District Court judge that would allow any registered voter in Texas to apply for an absentee ballot based on a disability claim, because voting in person could pose a health risk for contracting COVID-19, the contagious upper-respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus. Under Texas’ election laws, ballots by mail can only be issued to voters who are 65 or older, have a sickness or disability, are out of their home county during early voting and Election Day or are incarcerated but eligible to vote.
Paxton defended his stance in a brief filed Monday with 14th Court of Appeals in Houston.
“Unlawful expansion of mail-in voting, which is a special protection made available to Texans with actual disabilities, will only serve to undermine the security of our elections and to facilitate fraud,” Paxton said in a news release. “Fear of contracting COVID-19 does not amount to a sickness or physical condition as required by state law.”
Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, who filed his own brief with the appellate court Monday, challenges Paxton’s interpretation of the election law and his assertion that his appeal automatically stays the order issued in Travis County. Ryan said in a Tuesday news release that he asked the appellate court to rule that the lower court’s order should stand pending the completion of the appeal process, so Harris County can accept the absentee ballots it has received and count them in the upcoming runoff.
The appellate court did that Thursday, upholding the temporary order issued in Travis County while the appeal process continues. But the Texas Supreme Court trumped the decision a day later, ruling that the Travis County order is stayed during the appeal.
So for now, at least, those who did not qualify for ballots by mail before the pandemic must continue to vote in person during the pandemic.
In his Tuesday statement arguing for the expansion of voting by mail, Ryan cited a recent poll by Rice University professor Bob Stein, an expert on local politics, that shows a majority of voters would prefer to submit ballots by mail if they have the option.
“What concerns me about the polling is that 9 percent of Texans surveyed stated if they cannot vote by mail and are only eligible to vote in person in the July 14 runoff, they do not plan to vote at all,” Ryan said. “While Attorney General Paxton as a political actor may wish to suppress the vote and keep those citizens who are unwilling to risk their lives and health from voting, such a goal is unconstitutional.”
Eastman said she thinks it should generally be easier to vote by mail in Texas, which does not offer the option to all of its voters like many other states. A majority of readers who commented about the issue on a Facebook post by The Leader also said voters should have the option to submit absentee ballots, especially during a pandemic.
Some likened mail-in voting to submitting online tax returns.
“In this day and age there is absolutely no reason not to be able to vote by mail and validate online ballots,” area resident Sandy Francis wrote. “We trust our financial information to be handled properly. Why are we unable to process ballots?”
Some readers sided with Paxton, saying they were concerned about voter fraud if absentee balloting is expanded. Others said going to a polling place to vote would be no more dangerous than going to a supermarket or hardware store.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a proclamation Monday that expands the early voting period for the July 14 runoff, originally scheduled for July 6-10. Citing a need to increase the number of days for early voting so election officials can implement social distancing and hygienic practices at polling places, Abbott moved up the start of early voting to June 29.
“Fine voting in person,” area resident Rachel Lowe wrote on Facebook, “as long as I can take my Clorox wipes in with me and people wear masks.”
Harris County Commissioners Court recently approved $12 million in funding for the office of Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who administers elections in the county. The money was earmarked to cover increased costs associated with holding an election during a pandemic, including the potential for expanded mail-in balloting.
Roxanne Werner, a spokesperson for Trautman, said the plan is to provide Harris County poll workers with personal protective equipment such as gloves, hand sanitizer and face shields. Werner also said the clerk’s office will conduct online, at-home training for poll workers in order to minimize gatherings.
Werner said nearly 75,000 voters have applied for mail-in ballots since the March 3 primary, with some of those applications possibly being for the November election and not the July 14 runoff. Still, she said the number of ballot-by-mail applications represents an increase of about 7,000 compared to the number of applications leading up to the primary.
Werner said the county clerk’s office is preparing for expanded absentee voting and for the status quo, and it’s also preparing to operate without Trautman. She is resigning at the end of May for personal reasons, with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo saying a replacement will be appointed soon thereafter.
“It’s in our benefit if any changes like that are made as soon as possible,” Werner said of the ballot-by-mail issue. “We do have to change strategies.”