SAN ANTONIO – The COVID-19 pandemic has made voting a more stressful endeavor than in years past as voters try to keep themselves and others safe at the polls.
Election officials cannot screen voters or keep those with symptoms from voting in-person, according to a Jun. 18 elections advisory from Director of Elections Keith Ingram, though Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen has asked those with COVID-19 to stay away, saying "please don’t endanger my election officials.”
“Please keep them safe," Callanen said while speaking to reporters. “They still have a long marathon to go on. So, please think of them.”
An Oct. 15 Facebook post from the Bexar County Elections Department also asks voters not to request curbside voting —an option suggested in the same elections advisory.
So, what’s the alternative?
A spokesman with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office declined to speak on the record, citing pending litigation, but the Texas Civil Rights Project says mail-in ballots are an option.
Voting by mail is available to people 65 years or older, confined in jail, out of the county for early or Election Day voting in-person, or be sick or disabled. But applications have to be received by Friday, Oct. 23 — not just postmarked by that date.
The option has been very popular this year, so far. Of the 105,447 ballots the elections department had sent out as of Monday morning, Callanen said 62,673 have already come back -- an “unheard of” rate of 59%.
It is also already a record-breaking figure, far beyond both the 2016 or 2018 general elections, which saw fewer than 40,000 absentee ballots returned.
If you get sick after the Oct. 23 deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot, you could still get an emergency early voting ballot - an option Callanen put forward while speaking to reporters on Monday.
Known in the state election code as a “late ballot,” it requires jumping through more hoops, including turning in a form with a physician’s signature, which is not required with the typical application to vote by mail.
The Texas Civil Rights Project is part of a legal battle in state court to overturn that particular requirement. Mimi Marziani, president of the organization, said the rules and requirements do not make sense, especially in a pandemic.
“We think it’s unfair,” Marziani said. “It doesn’t make any sense to treat people after that 23rd cut-off differently than folks before. And by the way, that doubly doesn’t make sense during a pandemic when, quite frankly, our health care providers are very, very busy.”
While a judge gave them a temporary injunction in a ruling on Friday, Marziani said the decision had already been appealed.
“I hope to know final answer in the next couple of days before we hit that deadline,” Marziani said. “Although I will again — just to say it a million times — anybody who has COVID right now should absolutely just apply for a ballot by mail.”
The application for the emergency ballot has to be submitted after the final day of early voting in-person, which is Oct. 30 in this election, and before 5 p.m. on Nov. 3.
The voter has to choose a representative who will deliver both their application and their completed ballot to the early voting clerk in-person. The completed late ballot must be returned by 7 p.m. on Nov. 3.
Elections officials are not able to require voters to wear masks at the polls either, though Callanen asked voters to do so.
“As a sign of respect, please put the mask on," Callanen said. “Please keep those election officials safe.”