When Texans vote this fall, it’s likely to be under unusual circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic will almost certainly be ongoing, turnout is likely to be sky-high, and recent changes to the U.S. Postal Service have cast doubt on whether ballots sent by mail will be received and counted by Election Day. What’s a good citizen to do? Whether you vote early or on November 3, whether you cast your ballot by mail or in person, here’s everything you need to know about how to make sure your vote gets received and counted.
When does voting start?
In most elections, Texas has a two-week window for early voting. In late July, however, Governor Greg Abbott expanded Texas’s early voting period by a week, which means that voters can visit any polling location in their home counties to cast their ballots on weekdays from Tuesday, October 13, through Friday, October 30. Election Day is November 3. Voters aren’t assigned a specific early voting location in advance, so if you see a “vote here” sign outside of a school, library, etc., and haven’t yet cast your ballot, you can pop in and vote on the spot anywhere in your home county. Just make sure to bring your photo ID. (More on that below.)
How long will it take to vote?
It’s probably wise to expect long lines. But the wait times will depend on location, time of day, and other variables. As it did for the July runoffs, Travis County plans to use a Google Maps app with green, yellow, and red dots to indicate how long the lines are at each location. Most of the largest counties in Texas, including Bexar, Collin, Dallas, Denton, El Paso, Fort Bend, Harris, and Williamson, told Texas Monthly that they expect to have similar systems in place in the fall. (A few, such as Cameron and Montgomery counties, do not.) If your county doesn’t have an app, it’s best to rely on the ol’ drive-by-and-check system as the best way to determine if there’s a line snaking around the building.
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A 2018 study of the 2014 and 2016 elections by MIT researchers also found that lines at polling places tend to be longest in the mornings, so bear that in mind. In previous elections in Texas, lines have typically been shorter during the early voting period than on Election Day itself.
Can I just vote by mail instead?
It’s a simple question with a complicated answer. Texas law restricts access to mail-in ballots to voters 65 or older, those with disabilities, those who are incarcerated, and voters who won’t be in their county of residence during the early voting period or on Election Day. Voting rights advocates have argued in court that all Texans capable of contracting COVID-19 meet the definition of “disability” that appears in the Texas Election Code: “a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.” In the spring, Attorney General Ken Paxton warned that not having immunity for COVID-19 does not qualify a voter to cast a mail-in ballot.
Texas is one of just six states that requires an excuse for mail-in voting for voters under 65, and a federal case over the age provision is still pending. In April, the Texas Democratic Party and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the part of Texas law that restricts mail-in voting by age, arguing that the statute discriminates against voters under 65. The U.S. Supreme Court denied an emergency injunction before the July runoffs that would have required the state to make mail-in ballots available to all voters, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that the argument raised “weighty but seemingly novel questions regarding the 26th Amendment,” which states that voting rights “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.” She suggested that the court might consider those questions “well in advance of the November election.” The case is pending before the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where a ruling in favor of either party is likely to lead to an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and, potentially, an emergency injunction before voting begins.
In May, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the attorney general, finding that fear of contracting COVID-19 at a polling location doesn’t qualify as a disability by itself. There was some ambiguity in the ruling, however, which added that “a voter can take into consideration aspects of his health and his health history” in determining whether to apply to vote by mail. Some local voting administrators have given a sly wink-nod to voters, indicating that they won’t be investigating whether voters have a disability covered by the law.
That’s a messy answer to a straightforward question, but these are messy times. To summarize: You can definitely vote by mail if you’re 65 or older; if you have a disability that prevents you from appearing at the polling place on Election Day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring your health that is not strictly fear of contracting COVID-19; if you’re currently incarcerated; or if you won’t be in your home county from October 13 to November 3. You might be able to vote by mail outside of those circumstances, if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of the ACLU and the Texas Democratic Party sometime soon. And, based on the Texas Supreme Court decision, you can also apply to vote by mail based on your own assessment of your health, because the definition of “disability” in Texas is vague, and the highest civil court in the state ruled that it’s up to voters to decide, as long as a lack of immunity to COVID-19 isn’t the determining factor.
If I do qualify to vote by mail, how do I do that?
This one is more straightforward: You download an application here (or request to have one mailed to your house), fill it out, and ensure that it is received by your county’s election office by Friday, October 23. Then, once you have your ballot, you mail it early enough that it will be received by November 3, which is Election Day.
Will my mail-in ballot be received in time to count for the election?
Earlier this month, the Postal Service listed Texas as one of the 46 states that may experience delays around the election, thanks to recent decisions by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to remove mail-sorting equipment and limit overtime for workers. Under pressure from Congress, DeJoy issued a statement meant to reassure voters. “The Postal Service is ready today to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives this fall,” he said, indicating that he planned to postpone implementing further cost-cutting measures until after the election. According to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, though, DeJoy told her there are “no plans” to reverse the recent changes that sparked the initial concerns about delays. In testimony before Congress on Friday, DeJoy reiterated that election mail will be delivered “fully and on time,” though six states and the District of Columbia have filed a lawsuit arguing that DeJoy had not addressed core concerns over what the suit calls “illegal changes.”
At the moment, there’s not a lot of clarity over exactly how the beleaguered Postal Service will handle a large volume of mail-in ballots. During the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama urged voters to go “in person if we can” and said those who would be using mail-in ballots should “send them back immediately.” Election officials across Texas have expressed concerns that the system may not be able to handle the demand for mail voting. We don’t know for sure that there will be problem with mail-in ballots, but people who know the system don’t seem to have high confidence, at least at the moment, that it will go as smoothly as they’d like. The smart thing to do, regardless, is to get your ballot in the mail as early as possible—or to deliver it to the county election office in person.
Can I just drop my mail-in ballot off at a ballot-collection box?
Unfortunately, no. Other states use large ballot-collection boxes, where voters can deposit their ballots without worrying about potential Postal Service delays—but in Texas, that kind of alternative ballot-collection method is against the law. Instead, Texans who don’t want to vote in person but also don’t trust the postal service to deliver their ballot on time have one option: they can hand-deliver their ballot to an official at their county election office. When they arrive, voters can enter the building, show their ID to the official, sign a document, and be on their way. That’s not exactly the contact-free process that COVID-wary voters may want, but it’s the only alternative to putting a ballot in the mail (besides voting in person, of course) allowed by a state whose officials have defeated multiple attempts to make it easier to vote.
How can I make sure my ballot is counted once it’s received?
Nationally, more than 500,000 mail-in ballots were rejected in 23 states during the primaries. In the 2016 presidential election, 318,000 ballots were tossed. The high rejection rate is in part because of late deliveries, and also because the rules for mail-in ballots can be complicated. The specifics for disqualifying an absentee ballot vary by state. In Kentucky, for example, voters had ballots rejected for inadvertently tearing off a flap on the envelope. In Wisconsin, ballots were scrapped for having slight tears in the envelope, according to the Washington Post.
In an analysis of rejected ballots by the Texas Tribune, which looked at mail-in data from nine of the ten most populous counties in the state (Dallas didn’t participate), the rejection rate during the 2020 primaries was encouragingly low—of the nearly 200,000 votes cast by mail in Texas this summer, only 3,010 were rejected, most because they were received too late. The other reason the Tribune found? An invalid or missing signature, which could mean either that the voter forgot to sign the ballot and the envelope, which the Texas Election Code requires—or that the signatures didn’t match, in the estimation of the local official counting the ballots. Two voters represented by the Texas Civil Rights Project sued the state over that rule in 2019, arguing that the signature-matching was done “arbitrarily and subjectively” by “untrained local officials,” with the case pending. In May, after the pandemic began, several voting and civil rights groups filed a second lawsuit, arguing—among other things—that the signature rule discriminated against voters with disabilities who may not be able to produce identical signatures each time. Until those cases are ruled on by the courts, the best way to ensure that your ballot isn’t rejected is to ensure that the signature on the ballot matches the signature on the envelope as closely as possible.
What’s the safest way to vote in person?
There aren’t statewide rules for safe in-person voting during this pandemic. However, you can and should follow the same guidelines that public health experts recommend at, say, a supermarket: wear a mask when possible (while the governor’s order doesn’t require voters to wear masks, it also doesn’t prevent it), practice social distancing, and wash or sanitize your hands. Some polling locations offer voters a prophylactic they can put on their finger before touching the voting machine; it’s a good idea to use one. Voters are still required to show a photo ID, though the governor’s order doesn’t require that they remove their masks when presenting it to the poll worker.
Those who aren’t allowed to vote by mail, or don’t trust that their ballot will be delivered in time and who also don’t want to risk entering a polling location, have another option: Texas election law mandates that all polling locations offer curbside voting. In the July runoff, some county officials were explicit that this was an option for the coronavirus-cautious. Harris even installed buzzers that voters could press from their cars, and made a video explaining how it worked. In other counties, voters needed to call the election office after arriving at their polling location to use curbside voting, and some officials asked voters to reserve the curbside capacity for those who physically couldn’t enter a polling location.
There’s no statewide guidance for curbside voting, though Michele Carew, the elections chief in Aransas County and president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators, said that most local election officials intend to let voters know about their right to cast a curbside ballot. In bigger, well-resourced counties that might be a technological solution, such as Harris County’s buzzer system. In her own rural county, Carew plans to hang a big four-by-four-foot sign outside the building with a phone number to call. In either case, if voters call to request a curbside ballot, officials have to provide one. “A voter does not have to justify their reasoning,” she told Texas Monthly.