Tamara Sell moved to Montrose from Seattle. COVID-19 or not, she’s ready to vote, in person if she has to.
“I will likely risk my health and go vote because it’s really important to me – with a mask, social distancing as much as I can, with all the measures in place,” she said.
Sell works as a deputy voter registrar.
“I communicate with a lot of other people, I don’t necessarily feel comfortable encouraging them to vote and risking their life, especially if they have health conditions,” Sell said.
If a deputy registrar is that worried, then what about the average voter?
Rice University recently surveyed Harris County voters. And nearly 70% of respondents preferred voting by mail if that’s an option.
“We found that a large number of voters – particularly Democrats, women, and persons over 65 – were reluctant to vote in person at a polling location on or before Election Day,” said Rice political scientist Bob Stein.
But by Attorney General Ken Paxton’s interpretation, Texas law only permits only one of those groups, those over 65, eligible to ask for a mail-in ballot.
“I’m over 65, so if I want to vote by mail, I can,” said Tom Berg, an attorney and an army veteran who lives near Memorial Park. “But traditionally I’ve gotten in line with everybody else and done that. And it gives me pause that we may have to socially distance or be exposed to the coronavirus, in order to exercise the franchise.”
It’s been a rollercoaster week in Texas when it comes to the right to vote by mail in Texas. Challenges have gone back and forth in state and federal courts.
Under Texas state law, voters qualify for mail-in ballots if they are 65 years or older, have a disability or illness, will be out of the county or are in jail.
On Wednesday, the Texas Supreme Court heard oral argument about whether expanding mail-in balloting during the COVID-19 pandemic is legal, as many counties in the state argue that it is. Some local election officials have argued that a lack of immunity to COVID-19 constitutes a physical condition as defined in the Texas statutes, which would prevent people from voting without causing likely injury to health.
A day earlier, a federal court granted a preliminary injunction that would allow all registered voters to apply to vote by mail, finding that the state’s existing rules violate the Equal Protection Clause. That decision has since been blocked by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The possibility of getting sick at the polls is a big worry for Ashley Werner of Greenway Plaza, 29, who is immunocompromised.
“I am avoiding grocery stores,” Werner said. “I’m avoiding going anywhere that’s not necessary. And I’ve been working from home since March 17, so I did think about it for a little bit, but I do think it was kind of like the no-brainer. It was like, ‘OK, it’s time to apply for voting by mail since I’m considered a higher risk population.’”
But there are also voters like Ryan Russell of the Heights, who is in his mid-30s and in decent health. Yet he’s anxious about having to wait on long lines in close proximity to other people in order to cast his ballot.
“You know, I work over by the AIG Building, and there’s an early voting center [nearby],” Russell said. “I would probably take time out of my day to sit in the parking lot and watch how many, you know– were there a lot of cars, are there a lot of people, you know, things like that. But I’d have to really go out of my way to make an effort to figure out when the place is going to be the least crowded and go in and do it like that.”
Rice’s Bob Stein also found African Americans are far more nervous about voting in person, with just 17.7% of those surveyed saying they would do so even if social distancing protocols were in place. More than 41% of voters said they would vote in person. Among those voters, Stein said, the majority were Democrats, many were women, and as a group, were slightly more likely to be over 65.
If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and Houston Public Media. Thanks for donating today.