Austin voter Diane Owens and her husband are voting by mail for the first time in the 2020 presidential election. They qualify to do so in Texas because they are both over the age of 65, but Owens said it was nervousness over long lines and other risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic that caused her and her husband to skip visiting the polls in person for the first time. Another factor is protecting her physically disabled eldest son from the virus.
“He can also vote by mail. I wish my youngest son could qualify since he is an essential worker and we all live together,” Owens said.
However, Texas’ guidelines regarding what qualifies as a disability are vague, according to Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir. Voters are not required to give any information about their disability when applying for a mail-in ballot, which gives voters concerned about the coronavirus due to the underlying conditions of their own or a household member—such as the Owens family—some leeway.
“The voter has the right and the prerogative to make their own determination about whether they qualify for a disability category for by-mail ballots based on their own health and health history and those immediate to them,” DeBeauvoir said.
Travis County elections staff—and elections officials across the country—say they expect record mail-in voting turnout, primarily because of voters like Owens who are anxious about COVID-19 risks.
DeBeauvoir said 100 million mail-in ballots are expected nationally, 100,000 of them from Travis County voters. That is around 12% of the county’s 828,644 registered voters as of the July 2020 midterm elections. After high early voting numbers in July, with 98,963 out of 143,865 ballots cast early, DeBeauvoir also expects high early voting turnout in November.
In order to prepare for this influx and voters’ health and safety in mind, DeBeauvoir and her staff are expanding and reimagining voting options through lesser-known angles of Texas’ legal code, including options such as drive-thru drop-offs for mail-in ballots.
“We really are trying to make sure that voters feel safe enough that they will not discount any of those methods of voting that are available to them,” she said.
New paths to the ballot box
Per Texas law, only certain voters can receive and cast ballots via mail: those who are over the age of 65, confined to jail but eligible to vote, expecting to be out of the county or who have a disability. While Texas Democrats have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to allow all registered voters access to mail-in ballots during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Texas’ rules will likely be unchanged come November, according to a local elections expert, professor Brian Smith of the St. Edward’s University Political Science Department.
“Texas has very restrictive mail-in voting requirements. Don’t assume that they’re going to be really relaxed anytime before Election Day,” Smith said. “Right now, being afraid of catching a virus isn’t enough for an absentee ballot. That’s where we stand.”
The Texas Supreme Court determined in May that a voter’s lack of immunity from COVID-19 or concern about contracting the virus does not qualify as a disability under Texas’ election statute. However, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht wrote in the court’s decision that voters were not and would not be required to specify what disability they had when applying for a mail-in ballot.
“The voter is not instructed to declare the nature of the underlying disability. The elected officials have placed in the hands of the voter the determination of whether in-person voting will cause a likelihood of injury due to a physical condition,” Hecht wrote.
While many states including Texas examined their mail-in voting regulations this year, the leadership of the U.S. Postal Service came under scrutiny for budget cuts that some politicians said would threaten the post office’s ability to process mail-in ballots.In August, U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testified to Congress about the cuts. DeBeauvoir called his decision to remove some high-volume mail-sorting machines “deliberate sabotage” in an interview with Community Impact Newspaper. The Postal Service, however, expressed confidence in smoothly handling election mail in a tweet, saying “delivering America’s election mail is our number one priority between now and Election Day.”
If potential mail-in voters—including 123,000 in Travis County over age 65 who are eligible—are concerned about the Postal Service’s ability to handle an influx of ballots, DeBeauvoir said the county will provide additional options.
DeBeauvoir and staff are taking advantage of Texas law that allows voters who have received a ballot by mail to deliver it by hand to the business office of the county clerk. The county originally opened three drive-thru locations to drop off mail-in ballots on Oct. 1. However, an order by Gov. Greg Abbott limited Texas counties to one location each to hand deliver mail in ballots. As of Oct. 2, the only location for voters to deliver their mail in ballots in Travis County is 5501 Airport Blvd., Austin.
Early bird casts the vote
Even during a pandemic, past election trends suggest a majority of voters will visit the polls in person, either on Election Day, Nov. 3, or during Travis County’s early voting period from Oct. 13-30. DeBeauvoir and Smith agree that voting early is the best way for voters to ensure they make it to the voting booth, with the expectation of long lines on Election Day.
While voting lines can be unwieldy in any election year, 6-foot social distancing requirements at the polls are likely to lengthen them in November. Additionally, this will be the first election since Travis County eliminated straight-ticket voting, an option that allowed voters to automatically select the candidate from a certain party across all races on the ballot. Because voters must take time to consider each race individually, they could spend more time in the voting booth and slow down lines.
“If you don’t take advantage of early voting, you’ll show up on Election Day and the lines might be long, or longer than you expected, and you’re worried about your health, and then what you’re going to do is because of those factors, give up that sacred right,” Smith said. “The worst thing you can do is not vote, because wanting to vote is the same as not voting at all.”
During early voting, residents can use the clerk’s website to check wait times at nearby polls and choose one with a short wait at a date and time convenient to them. However, some of the locations voters are used to accessing, both for early voting and on Election Day, will not be in use in November, including supermarkets such as Fiesta and Randall’s.
“We will not be able to go back to the grocery stores for a while, because there’s no way to social distance and protect the voters and shoppers,” DeBeauvoir said.
Schools, which have served as voting centers in the past, will still be used on Election Day. Austin ISD voted Sept. 28 on a proposal to designate Nov. 3 as a student holiday, clearing the way to welcome voters onto campuses without creating undue risk.
Health and safety
Social distancing is just one aspect of the health and sanitation requirements planned for Travis County polling places. Many of these precautions, including plastic barriers, finger cots for signatures, popsicle sticks for voting screens, and personal protective equipment, were already put in place during July’s primary runoff elections. Nathan Ryan, a local business executive who volunteered at the polls in July, said he felt satisfied by the precautions taken.
“We took safety measures extremely seriously. We would listen to any concerns that any voter had and make sure that [if] they felt like they needed PPE, or if there were things like that that we could be helpful with, then we would make sure that they have what they needed,” he said.
Ryan volunteered for the first time in July after learning that most of the county’s poll workers were over the age of 65 and considered at risk for the coronavirus. Many of those longtime volunteers sat out the July election or helped with processing mail-in ballots, away from the crowds. In November, again, the county is seeking volunteers, and he plans again to be one of them.
“You could literally be saving a life for somebody who is in one of those more greatly affected demographics. I think there’s some real patriotism to showing up and working the polls in order to keep somebody else safe,” he said.
DeBeauvoir said her office received positive feedback from voters about health and safety practices at the polls in July, and Ryan said he felt satisfied with the provisions from a poll worker’s perspective. While there was not a mask mandate in place at the time, Ryan said only one person showed up to his polling place without a mask in the 14 hours he worked.
Assuming the current statewide and local mask mandates remain in place by Nov. 3, voters will be asked to wear masks to the polls. However, DeBeauvoir said voters who refuse to wear a mask will still be legally allowed to vote.
The most important mission of the clerk’s office for this election, DeBeauvoir said, is to make voters feel safe and confident to vote.
“They’ve been frightened by coming inside the polling place, and they’ve been frightened about putting ballots in the mail. What else is left to voters?” she said. “Don’t let them take those your options away from you. You can vote by mail, and you can vote in person—safely.”
Find more information on where and when to vote, along with the local candidates running in Travis County here.