The gap between political parties has widened as discussions continue over whether widespread voting by mail is safe, secure, and fair. President Trump has repeated his assertion that mail-in voting will invite rampant fraud, while Democrats argue that fears about the pandemic are legitimate reasons to lift restrictions on qualifications for voting by mail.
Here in Texas, the same restrictions that have always been in place for absentee voting remain. According to Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughes, a voter “must be 65 years or older, be disabled, be out of the county on election day and during the period for early voting by personal appearance, or be confined in jail, but otherwise eligible. If you do not meet these eligibility requirements, it is expected that you will vote in person at a designated polling site.”
Fort Bend Republican Party Chair Linda Howell spoke about the policies within the county. “The Fort Bend Republican Party will encourage voters to comply with decisions made by the Secretary of State regarding voters who need to request a ballot by mail. We believe that all voters who qualify under the current election code should receive a ballot by mail.”
In addressing concerns about in-person voting during the pandemic, Howell said, “The public has been advised by health officials that wearing a face covering and social distancing may help ensure their safety.”
Each state is given the authority to determine voting requirements and to allow for mail-in voting. While Texas has maintained the same policy for decades, other states have adopted their own guidelines. Three have conducted virtually all-mail elections for years: Washington, Oregon and Colorado. They have reported success with their voting system and will continue with it through this next presidential election. Up until this year, they were the anomaly.
However, Covid-19 has changed the way some people are looking at in-person voting. Since March, much of the nation has self-quarantined, followed social distancing guidelines, worn masks inside businesses that require it, and avoided large group gatherings. With the election just a couple of months away, some voters are expressing concerns about standing in lines at polling locations, being in close proximity to others, and touching polling machines.
This isn’t the first time these concerns have arisen. Pre-primary, Judge Fred Biery of the Federal District Court in San Antonio ruled that “any eligible Texas voter who seeks to vote by mail in order to avoid transmission of Covid-19 can apply for, receive and cast an absentee ballot in upcoming elections during the pendency of pandemic circumstances.”
But that injunction was promptly blocked by The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton applauded that decision, stating, “There is no constitutional right to vote by mail. So long as a state has permitted voting through other means, which Texas has, the right to vote is not implicated.”
While only a small number of states is planning to proactively send mail ballots to all voters, the nationwide attitude toward mail ballots is positive. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 70% of Americans reported that they think any voter who wants to vote by mail should be able to do so.
Currently, 29 states allow registered voters to request a ballot by mail. In those states with restrictions, many are expanding the option as a result of the pandemic or allowing voters to use it as a legitimate reason to vote by mail. Texas has not joined that group.
President Trump is concerned that Democrats are encouraging mail-in voting that will make the practice more widespread, thus opening up the system to dishonesty, errors, and fraud. Without witness signatures and identification requirements, he argues, the process is compromised.
Many in the party agree. At the same time, they acknowledge that creating fear of mail-in voting is a double-edged sword, one that can keep Republicans from voting as well.
Cynthia Ginyard, Chair of the Fort Bend Democratic Party, said, “President Trump’s statements regarding errors and dangers with mail-in voting are not just making Democrats fearful to vote using this method, but are also making Republicans think twice. He is curbing all voters, including his own.”
But Ginyard says there is nothing to fear from voting from home. “Ballot by mail is something we’ve always done. It’s always been one-third of the election process, the other two being early voting and Election Day. We’ve had many more requests this year, almost entirely from seniors who previously went to the polls and are now asking for ballot by mail due to Covid-19 concerns.”
Ginyard is reminding voters that curbside voting is an alternative and available at every polling location. She advises voters with safety concerns to remain in the car and request curbside voting from a volunteer. Machines are portable and can be brought to the car. She says this service has been available for years, but there has not been “a grand need” before the pandemic.
Howell offered some additional reassuring news for in-person voters. “Fort Bend County has taken extra measures to help ensure the safety and welfare of voters at the polling place including an extra week of early voting and additional voting locations, PPE’s provided for election workers, extra personnel and training for judges and clerks regarding health and safety implementation, a sanitary check-in process which provides hand sanitizer and a method to sanitize pens, a touchscreen stylus for each voter, and signage reminding voters of social distancing.”