Editor’s Note: This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
Charles Inge has voted in Dallas County from his home in London, England, for more than three decades, mailing in his overseas ballot while he works across the Atlantic as an architect and academic.
Like clockwork, the 65-year-old requests his mail-in, or absentee ballot, every February, and his November ballot arrives in September. But not this year.
County officials told him to check his inbox’s spam folder, but Inge insists he’s not received it.
“If I get a ballot at all, I guess I’ll have to pay to send it by courier at this point to stand a chance that it will arrive,” said Inge.
There is no way to know yet how many absentee ballots have gone missing or are still en route to voters’ mailboxes or — in the case of overseas voters — inboxes. It hasn’t been a major problem in years past, voters say, but there’s no question that the system is strained by a record number of absentee voters in an election marked by unprecedented turnout, pandemic fears and a high-stakes presidential election.
Registered voters can qualify to vote by mail if they are 65 years or older, cite a disability or an illness, or are confined in jail but still eligible to vote. Voters who will not be in the county where they're registered on Election Day and during the entire early voting period can also request a ballot by mail.
Election officials say mail-in ballots are still being sent to voters through this week, and they will be counted as long as they are postmarked by Tuesday, Election Day, and arrive in county offices by Wednesday.
Inge has a last resort — a Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot, which is the equivalent of a provisional ballot for overseas and military voters and wouldn’t be counted on Election Day, but would before the final vote canvass.
But if a mail-in voter in the U.S. never receives a ballot and can’t make it back home to vote by Election Day, their options evaporate. The possibility has some Texas voters worried about losing their shot and frustrated about the hoops they’re being forced to jump through to get answers.
In Travis County, elections officials are expecting some 100,000 mail-in ballots to be cast in this election. In Harris County, where officials sent out applications to every registered voter over 65, some 250,000 requests for mail-in ballots were received and are being processed — more than double the number from 2016. In Bexar County, the elections office had mailed out more than 115,000 absentee ballots as of Monday, and more requests are being processed as they come in this week. All those numbers are breaking records, county officials said.
Some absentee voters may not see their ballots hit their mailboxes until Halloween, said Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen, acknowledging the “tight window” that scenario creates for many voters. For those who don’t live in the same county, it’s unlikely that a ballot will arrive in the mail the very next day.
“We’re pushing it,” she said. “But that’s how it works.”
What do you do if you haven’t received your mail-in ballot?
Voters worried about mail-in voting can ensure their ballot is counted by showing up at the polls in person, though that's not an option for some who are out of state.
Joaquin Gonzalez, a voting rights attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said voters can cancel their absentee ballots or ballot applications at county elections headquarters or, in some counties, the polling sites.
That’s what happened to Texas resident Jonathan Van Ness, an expert on the Netflix series “Queer Eye.” His absentee ballot never arrived at the location where he was going to be working on Election Day, but officials told him it had been mailed out Oct. 8, Van Ness wrote in an Instagram post last week.
Van Ness went to the elections office, filled out the paperwork to cancel his ballot, and then took the paperwork to an early voting site. But because the computer system hadn’t yet updated that action in the system, poll workers told him his only option at that moment was to cast a provisional ballot — which he declined to do.
Provisional ballots are a last resort for people who are in the county but can’t or don’t want to cancel their absentee ballots, or whose registration is in question when they vote. They are counted after Election Day if they are found to qualify, but before the official vote canvass is concluded.
“I want my vote counted period, end of story. Provisional is better than not voting but not ideal,” Van Ness wrote.
Another call to the elections office led to officials expediting his cancellation, and he was able to vote later in the day.
“The point is it took me like four hours to make sure my vote would count,” he wrote. “How many other absentee ballots are lost?”
If the ballot has not been sent, voters can cancel the application and vote in person.
Ken Ward and his wife, Breanna, ended up having to take that action because of an error. The Wards showed up to vote early in Beaumont and were told by the election worker that Breanna Ward had requested an absentee ballot and would need to cancel it.
But she had neither asked for nor received a mail-in ballot, she told the worker.
“When my wife reiterated that she wanted to vote then and there, the worker helped her cancel the absentee ballot,” Ken Ward said. “My wife definitely didn’t request the ballot.”
She got to cast a regular ballot, but the confusion was worrisome.
“It was really peculiar,” said Ward. “And we walked away with sort of a sour taste in our mouths. Just because of everything going on in this particular election, you don’t want any hiccups like that — especially ones you’ve never had before.”
Surrendering the ballot
Some voters say they received their mail-in ballots but became worried about whether their votes would be counted if they weren’t cast in person.
Denise Lynn of Hondo, in Medina County outside San Antonio, said she questioned the integrity of the process.
When her absentee ballot didn’t show up at its usual time in September, elections officials initially told her that her ballot was mailed Oct. 5. It arrived Oct. 22. As Republican state leaders waged a war on the expansion of mail-in voting, Lynn worried that her ballot could be invalidated.
She surrendered her mail-in ballot at an in-person polling site and voted on a machine instead.
“They may pull some shenanigans about not counting our mail-in votes, and I didn’t want to take that chance,” said Lynn, 67.
No application processed
If a voter has sent in an application or requested an application, but the application has not been received or processed, that voter can still vote in person with a regular vote with no affidavit required, Gonzalez said.
The absentee ballot will not be mailed if a vote has already been cast, Gonzalez said.
That’s what Bexar County voter Jacob Anderson did when his wife’s absentee ballot showed up, but his did not, he said.
“I waited as long as possible and figured given the situation, I was better off just voting in person, rather than waiting and possibly not getting my absentee ballot in time and not getting to vote at all,” he wrote in an email.
Worried that he wouldn’t be able to cast a ballot, Anderson drove three hours from Montgomery County back home to Bexar, went to an early voting site and was told that since there was no record of his application being processed yet, he could go ahead and cast a regular vote at the machine.
“They said that if it had been mailed to me, their computer would have notified them when I checked in with the first poll worker,” Anderson said. “I signed next to my name and moved on to the voting machine and voted just like I always have.”
This story was produced with the help of tips reported through ProPublica’s Electionland project. If you encounter an issue while voting that you think merits our attention, let us know here.