[Originally published in The Houston Chronicle on April 24, 2020]
As if our politics weren’t in terrible shape already, the pandemic seems likely to aggravate the deep rift in American society. While our country reels from a genuine American carnage, we’re already seeing the first hints of the possible effect the crisis may have on our political process in this presidential election year. And just as is the case with the pandemic, Texas has no special immunity.
While we now know the presumptive presidential nominees, other races for local, state, and federal office are on hold. As of early April, 15 states and Puerto Rico either postponed their primaries and caucuses or switched to a mail-in ballot. Texas’s runoff elections have been pushed from May to July.
With reason. Wisconsin’s April 7 primary was a fiasco. A shortage of poll workers, understandably alarmed by the risks, meant Milwaukee opened just five of the normal 180 polling stations. Just two of 31 polling stations were open in Green Bay . Unsurprisingly, many who did show up faced hours-long waits. Remember that on Super Tuesday, long before our major cities were locked down, we saw similar waits in parts of Texas.
The same issues may be in play in Texas this fall. We can hope that the virus threat will have lessened by then, but as in Wisconsin, our poll workers tend to be seniors. In Bexar County , 60 percent of them are 65 or older. And in a key difference, it’s easy for any voter to vote absentee in Wisconsin. Not so in Texas.
All Americans should be able to cast their ballots by mail to protect the health of voters and poll workers. Five states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah), ranging from deep red to deep blue, automatically enable every voter to participate by mail. But proposals to extend mail voting nationally have quickly sparked a bitter partisan debate in Washington and closer to home.
In about two-thirds of the states and the District of Columbia, any voter can request an absentee ballot to vote by mail without having to provide a reason. But not in Texas, where a voter must have a state-approved excuse to vote by mail. In Texas, the only acceptable reasons for voting by mail are being 65 years or older; disabled; out of the county on election day and during the early voting period; or confined in jail, but still eligible to vote. Last week, a Travis County judge issued an injunction to allow voters who fear becoming ill to vote by mail; the attorney general said the state will appeal, setting the stage for a fight in the courts. The state ought to embrace the judge’s recommendation.
Texas does have a lengthy period for voting early. Besides Election Day on Nov. 3, early voting will occur between Oct. 19 and 30. In an ordinary year, under ordinary circumstances, 13 days provide ample opportunity to vote. But that may not be the case this fall.
Our state has a troubling historical track record of extending the franchise. While the law no longer allows Texas to openly bar large numbers of citizens from voting, there are provisions making it harder for everyone to participate. Just last year, the Secretary of State was forced to resign after a badly managed effort to verify the eligibility of thousands of naturalized citizens to vote. This year’s March primary saw hours-long lines to vote in many parts of the state, prompting lawmakers in Austin to call for hearings to investigate what went wrong.
While we hope things will have returned to normal — or perhaps some sort of a new normal — by November, there’s no guarantee that even if we flatten the curve, the virus won’t flair up again. Reports indicate that may be happening in China and Singapore. Moreover, there are primaries and a campaign scheduled in the seven months before the general election. No one knows whether the party conventions will be possible in August. The virtual shutdown of society and the necessity of social distancing has forced both parties to eliminate events like rallies and fundraisers. Door-to-door canvassing is unthinkable under the present restrictions.
Some governors, like New Hampshire Republican Chris Sununu, have moved to allow no excuse absentee voting this year. In states with mail-in ballots, citizens can cast their ballots on Election Day. But they also have the option to do so from their homes — an option Texans also deserve. No doubt, this is a major undertaking, which is why it’s essential that Texas gets moving quickly. It will also be costly, but there are some newly available federal resources that can help.
The pandemic has shaken many of America’s institutions to their core. We all crave a return to the way things used to be. With so much uncertainty, Texans deserve to know that they will be able to safely and securely cast their ballots this fall. The simplest way to do this is by enabling every Texan to vote by mail. Our state’s leaders need to act quickly to ensure that happens.
Lloyd is the Bradford M. Freeman Director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.