SAN ANTONIO – There is a battle brewing across Texas over how our upcoming elections will be conducted. At the center of the battle is whether the state will allow elections officials to expand mail-in voting to people who fear in-person voting in the middle of a global pandemic.
At this point, several civil rights groups, voters and even the Texas Democratic Party have filed lawsuits challenging the limitations that are currently in place for those who want to vote by mail.
Under current Texas Election Code, anyone can apply to vote by mail, but applicants have to list a reason.
“There are all sorts of stipulations that come into play,” said Dr. Jon Taylor, the Political Science Department Chair at The University of Texas at San Antonio. “It’s not an easy task to do absentee balloting in this state.”
To be eligible to vote early by mail in Texas, you 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
• Be confined in jail, but otherwise eligible
The list of pre-approved excuses does not account for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Never before have Americans been asked to vote and to put their lives at risk,” said Dr. Katsuo Nichikawa, the Director of the Center for International Engagement at Trinity University.
Civil rights organizations and political scientists are worried about the impact this will have on voter turnout.
“We should be encouraging people to vote,” Taylor said. “Putting barriers up is not something we want to do.”
Historically, voter turnout in Bexar County has been low. A record 253,000 voters cast ballots in the March primaries. But that number still totaled only about 22% of the 1.1 million people registered to vote.
“You may want to ignore politics, but politics is not going to ignore you," Taylor said. “You’re paying for the stuff. It’s pocketbook issues as much as anything else.”
Why is there such push back?
Why has this become such a controversial topic? Many critics cite concerns about voter fraud, including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
On May 1 Paxton sent a letter to local elections officials saying that voters cannot legally ask for mail-in ballots because they fear contracting the new coronavirus. Ten days later he filed a brief seeking to prevent voter fraud through the expansion of mail-in voting.
But many say that cases of fraud and manipulation through mail-in ballots are so low, they are negligible.
“Cheating the system via mail-in ballots is the worst way, the most inefficient way of hacking an election,” said Nichikawa.
Some critics of vote-by-mail believe it would benefit one party. This is also something political scientists say has not been proven.
“There’s nothing that suggests mail-in balloting favors one party over another,” Taylor said. “There’s no evidence whatsoever that this is going to be a partisan tool.”
What are the chances that Texas will expand mail-in voting this year?
On Thursday, the Bexar County Commissioners Court passed a resolution that voters should be allowed to apply for mail-in ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic. The vote came after Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales offered his legal opinion that, under current state law, lack of immunity to COVID-19 can qualify as a physical disability.
But with the state of Texas interpreting the law in a different way, and several lawsuits undecided, it’s unclear what will come of this.
“The big counties in Texas are key to this by all leading this effort,” Taylor said. “It helps to build that level of support. Will we see it happen? I don’t know.”
There are five states in the United States that primarily vote by mail. Several others allow voters to mail in ballots without giving an excuse.