The state’s recommendations for voting in person amid COVID-19 reveal the depths officials are going to avoid expanding vote-by-mail as a safe alternative. It is an absolute treasure trove of contradiction and impractical advice.
It should also be noted that two thirds of states representing every region, size and partisanship, already allow vote-by-mail for anyone. As for Texas, the Secretary of State (SOS) issued an 8 page “Checklist for voters” described as “minimum health protocols” and suggested that voters are “encouraged to adopt additional protocols…to help protect the health and safety of all Texans.“ The first page warns you that the Coronavirus is “still circulating in our communities” and the rest of the document doesn’t do much to inspire confidence in any voter who may be apprehensive or particularly vulnerable.
The SOS suggests those exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms “consider utilizing curbside voting” and instructs them to contact their county elections office about process and eligibility. It’s hard to believe that the official guidance from the State of Texas is to instruct those who would otherwise be in quarantine to directly expose our election workers to COVID-19, but it’s true.
Voters are also expected to:
- Maintain six feet of separation between themselves and other voters.=
- Bring their own pen to mark ballots after contacting the County Elections Office “to determine what type of marking devices are appropriate”
- Bring their own hand sanitizer to use before and after voting
- “Consider” wearing a face covering BUT also be prepared to lower your facecovering so a poll worker can confirm your identity after which the “voter should wear their face covering through the rest of the voting process”
- If a person confirms they have contracted COVID-19 after the deadline to apply for vote-by-mail they are instructed to contact the County Elections Office about an Application for Emergency Early Voting Ballot Due to Sickness or Physical Disability
- Individuals over 65 are encouraged to stay home and vote by mail
In addition to instructions to voters the SOS released guidance for election workers including:
- Wear face coverings and encourage voters to wear face coverings
- “Provide varied voting opportunities for voters” including voting early, extending hours and “well-advertised curbside voting
- Disinfecting anything that comes into contact with voters including tables, pens and voting equipment
- Screen employees for COVID-19 symptoms
- “Maintain at least six feet separation from other individuals”
- Arrange voting machines to be 6 feet apart
Etc., etc., etc. The list goes on and is exhaustive. It’s quite clear from the get go that this is absolutely unworkable. Doctors and nurses who weighed in on the matter in court argued that the very nature of in-person voting posed a “heightened danger” and that many of the precautions around sanitation could be moot given the virus’ propensity to spread via respiratory droplets in the air.
There are other obvious complications like the fact that poll workers tend to be over 65, the group most susceptible to the life-threatening complications from the virus. The guidelines actually state that “individuals aged 65 and older should stay at home as much as possible.” This raises a lot of questions about what contingency plan is in place if workers choose not to participate, or if they must stay home if they begin showing symptoms. The guidance also says not to allow workers to work for 14 days if they have been in close contact with those confirmed to have COVID-19 and this includes their fellow poll workers.
So far the only accommodations that have been made to make in-person voting safer is an extension of the Early Voting period by Governor Abbott. In an interview with KCBD the Abbott said,
“And what that does — it allows more people to go vote early in settings that are not highly congregated. As a result, you can go vote without having to worry about a whole bunch of people being around you that you could contract COVID-19 from. That makes voting a lot safer [of a] setting than it would otherwise be with the shortened early voting time period.”
Abbott’s order comes amid several weeks of public campaigning to discredit voting by mail and after the Texas Supreme Court, which is 100% Republican, ruled that fear of catching the Coronavirus was not a legitimate excuse to vote absentee. Ironically, they did so remotely out of fear of catching the Coronavirus themselves. Reports indicate that the Trumps vote by mail, and state officials including Governor Greg Abbott, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton have all taken advantage of the opportunity to vote by mail. Patrick recently said that it was “laughable” and the “greatest scam ever” that people under 65 should be allowed to vote by mail because of the pandemic, however, in 2007 he voted by mail at the age of 57.
The fight to expand vote-by-mail is likely headed to the Supreme Court, but in the meantime it looks like voters in Texas will head to the runoff in person. It will be up to each of us to practice social distancing and not let partisanship keep us from fulfilling our civic duty.
Photo: SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images
Joe Deshotel is originally from Beaumont, Texas, but a combination of live music, politics, and natural beauty brought him to Austin in 2010. He has over a decade of experience in public policy that covers federal, state, and local government and has worked on a number of successful election campaigns. He continues to consult on Democratic campaigns and serves as the Chair of Austin’s Community Development Commission which advocates for affordable housing and solutions for homelessness.