Elections office braces for pandemic-related challenges
U.S. District Judge Fred Biery on Tuesday granted a preliminary injunction allowing anyone in Texas who wants to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic to qualify for a mail-in ballot.
That move was shot down less than a day later by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which temporarily blocked the federal court judge’s ruling from taking effect.
A similar case is set to be heard by the Texas Supreme Court.
With a primary runoff election set for July 14 and a November presidential election looming, no one knows whether Texans who are fearful of contracting COVID-19 at the polls will be forced to show up there anyway if they want to exercise their right to vote.
Either way will be a daunting challenge for Elections Administrator Crickett Miller. She said that she will likely need additional staff, even though every elected and appointed county official has been told to slash their budgets.
If more voters are allowed to vote by mail, “it will cost a lot of money,” Miller said.
Postage will cost 70 cents per ballot, and every ballot will involve four envelopes. The total spent on envelopes for each ballot will be $1, she stated.
As of Thursday afternoon, Hood County had 42,700 registered voters.
There is no signature on file for those who registered through the Department of Public Safety, and signature matches are what the county’s Ballot Board relies on to make sure each ballot is legitimate, Miller said.
“And there are a lot of those,” she added, referring to citizens who registered to vote through DPS.
Miller feels that if ballot-by-mail qualifications are expanded, the nine-member Ballot Board will need to be doubled for the November General Election. But even then, results will likely not be known for days.
Both political parties are represented on the board. A Republican judge oversees the group because that party is dominant in Hood County.
Members are paired up to make sure every ballot signature matches the signature on file. Only the signature is examined; board members do not see who the person voted for, Miller said.
If the paired board members can’t agree on whether a signature matches the one on file, the entire board discusses it and the majority decides whether the ballot should be accepted or rejected.
How long will this process take if there are thousands of ballot signatures to check?
Miller said that the state may extend the deadline for mail-in ballots, which would cause further delay in the posting of election results.
Voting in person will present its own set of problems, though.
Miller said that she was going to rent additional voting machines for the Nov. 3 election, but would have nowhere to put them due to social distancing and building occupancy requirements.
Longer, slower lines outside polling sites are a virtual certainty, possibly suppressing voter turnout, especially if there is inclement weather.
“Last November, it rained during much of the election,” Miller said, referring to the two-week early voting period leading up to Election Day.
Miller and other election officials across the state are on high center awaiting a court decision.
People are free to apply to vote by mail but will qualify only if they will be 65 or older at the time of the election, have a disability, will be absent from the county when voting occurs, or are confined to jail but eligible to vote.
“Right now, we’re following the rules of what it is now in the Election Code,” Miller said. “And until we get a decision, that’s how we’re going to do it.”
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