The omicron COVID-19 surge is already making the March primaries a challenge. Bexar County Elections administrator Jacque Callanen told County Commissioners that many election judges and poll staff may not show up because of the virus.
“Some of them are calling us and saying the spouse has it, the grandchildren have it — they have to wait and see,” Callanen said.
She explained that some regular polling sites are now being used for COVID testing.
“But now because it’s testing where people would be coming in with active cases, they’re debating whether we should be asking voters to come into a place and literally stand 10 feet from someone potentially infected,” she said.
Gov. Greg Abbott has made masking optional at voting sites. But a new Texas election law, known as Senate Bill 1, is making matters worse. The law makes it harder for eligible voters to vote from home. Getting a mail-in ballot application is now more difficult and filling it out is more complicated.
“Yesterday we received about 80 mail-in ballot applications. Forty-two of those did not fulfill the new requirements. So we have to reject those,” said Callanen.
Writing in the applicant’s voter ID number is now required; it can be a Texas driver’s license number or the last four digits of a social security number. But if their voter registration form didn’t include that information, then the mail-in ballot application is rejected.
And another issue is county election officials are now banned from offering mail-in ballot applications or promoting mail-in voting, said Chris Davis, the Williamson County Elections Administrator and the legislative chair for the Texas Association of Election Administrators.
“What we can tell people is definitely being curbed. How we can promote legal forms of voting is definitely being, for lack of a better term, abridged by this law — no question,” he said.
Under SB 1, an election official who promotes voting by mail may face a state felony with up to two years in prison. But others can send out unsolicited vote-by-mail applications, including candidates, political parties and voting activists — just not a county official.
“It’s odd. I dare say it’s hypocritical,” said Davis.
Election administrators can post a link to a PDF of the mail-in ballot on their webpage. And they can share that link on social media.
“But that’s about the limit of what we can do,” he said.
“These new restrictions on vote-by-mail serve no useful purpose and will only make voting a lot harder for lots of folks,” said James Slattery, the Senior Staff Attorney at The Texas Civil Rights Project.
“If you are elderly, this makes it harder to vote by mail. If you are a disabled voter, this makes it harder to vote by mail,” he said.
Slattery said blocking county officials from promoting vote by mail does nothing to improve election security. He said the law was written to dampen voting in Harris County, the state’s most populous county and a Democratic stronghold.
“They sent vote-by-mail applications to every registered voter in the county, and it caused state leadership to go berserk,” said Slattery.
To counter the state’s suppression of vote-by-mail, pro-democracy groups like the League of Women Voters of Texas are looking to take up the slack.
“Voters just need to step up, get online I guess or contact their local League of Women Voters, get that new voter vote by mail application,” said Grace Chimene, the league’s president.
The deadline to submit a vote-by-mail application in order to vote in the March primaries is Feb. 18, but Chimene said with all the confusion and rejection of applications people shouldn’t wait.