The coronavirus outbreak in the United States presents a seemingly endless number of systemic challenges. One big one: How do you hold elections in a pandemic?
That’s an urgent question in Texas, where statewide primary runoffs are scheduled for May 26, just over two months from now. Those races will determine the Democratic nominee to run against U.S. Senator John Cornyn, along with several down-ballot congressional, legislative, and countywide primaries for both parties.
It’s unclear what things in the state, or country, will look like by then. Uncertainty wrought by the coronavirus has turned the Texas political world on its head.
Officials with the state parties had a conference call Thursday to discuss potential options for the runoffs. They had hoped to reach an agreement and present the governor with a joint proposal by next week. On Thursday evening, Governor Greg Abbott said that his office would issue guidance as soon as Friday. However, talks between the parties appear to have broken down over fundamental disagreements about how to proceed.
Earlier this week, the Texas Democratic Party called on Abbott to take action so the runoffs can be conducted entirely via mail-in voting. This would mark an unprecedented expansion of the state’s limited vote-by-mail program, requiring local elections administrators to quickly pull off a massive logistical challenge.
The Texas Republican Party balked at state Democrats’ proposal. State GOP chair James Dickey told the Observer that the logistics required to implement and conduct vote-by-mail would mean “a lot of person-to-person contact via surface,” increasing the risk of exposure to coronavirus.
Instead, the Texas Republican Party said it will ask Abbott to delay the runoffs. “It is our position that the wisest and safest and smoothest way to protect our fellow Texans and their votes is to move the runoff election [back] by a matter of weeks,” Dickey said.
In a statement to the Observer, Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa also acknowledged that the runoff date may need to be pushed back. Still, he insisted that a massive expansion of vote-by-mail is a critical and necessary step.
“Simply hoping the virus will go away and that we can return back to normal is not a plan, it is head in the sand,” Hinojosa said. “We need to begin work on vote-by-mail and other options that do not rely heavily on in-person voting. We need to decide how our primary election will be held and work from there on an appropriate date for the primary election.” Hinojosa also dismissed concerns that the virus could be spread through the mail, pointing to the United States Postal Service’s announcement that the likelihood of catching the disease from handling mail is “very low.”
All eyes are now on Abbott. On Thursday, the governor issued guidance for municipalities set to hold local elections on May 2, advising them to reschedule for the general elections on November 2. Abbott told reporters that he would be making a decision about potential changes for the May 26 runoffs “shortly.” When asked if he was considering expanded mail-in voting, he said, “Everything’s on the table.”
Texas is one of the few remaining states that hasn’t adopted some form of “no-excuse” absentee voting. While more than 30 states now allow all voters to vote by mail, in Texas, casting a ballot by mail is restricted to eligible voters who are over the age of 65, have disabilities, and who are out of town when elections are held.
A coalition of advocacy groups urged Abbott to lift restrictions on the state’s limited vote-by-mail program for the upcoming runoffs. The groups, which include the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project, say that Abbott has the ability to expand mail-in voting with the swipe of a pen.
The groups sent a letter to Secretary of State Ruth Hughs on Wednesday, urging the state to issue guidance to county election administrators making vote-by-mail available for all eligible voters. As the letter explains, Texas’ election code allows for universal mail voting in the face of public health emergencies: “Pursuant to state law, a voter qualifies to vote by mail ‘if the voter has a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood . . . of injuring the voter’s health.’” (Abbott declared a public health emergency on Thursday, effective through April 3.)
Direct Action Texas, a right-wing group, urged Abbott to reject calls for expanded mail-in voting, which it says is just a liberal trojan horse. “The Democrat political maneuver, is thinly veiled in the interest of public health, was anticipated and should be rejected,” the group wrote in a post this week.
Right-wing activists have long used isolated instances of mail-in ballot tampering in Texas to fuel allegations of widespread voter fraud and calls for even stricter voting laws. State Attorney General Ken Paxton and Abbott, who previously held the post, both aggressively pursued voter fraud cases around mail-in voting.
Meanwhile, county election administrators are desperate for the governor to provide some sort of direction. Universal mail-in voting for the runoffs would require time and resources that they don’t have. In the big urban counties, providing ballots to all eligible voters in time for May runoffs would be a herculean task; the state’s most populous county, Harris, has 2.5 million registered voters. “That would be astronomical. We would have to do a lot of work to make that possible,” says Michael Winn, the director of elections for the Harris County Clerk. He says the change would require emergency funding from the state to get the resources—from ballot supplies to additional staff—necessary to pull it off.
Chris Davis, the legislative chair for the Texas Association of Elections Administrators, warns that a rapid pivot to universal mail-in voting could result in disaster. “We’re just not geared up for that,” says Davis, who is the elections administrator for Williamson County. “Our elections in Texas—right or wrong—are meant to be held, for the most part, with in-person voting and then exceptions given for ballot-by-mail. And to pivot off that in short order, it’d be something significant.” He believes the best plan is to pair a lifting of mail-in voting restrictions with a rescheduled runoff date that gives officials time to prepare.
It’s not yet clear if state leaders will heed that advice. Davis says the Texas Association of Elections Administrators hasn’t heard anything from the governor or secretary of state.
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