County election officials are navigating how to prepare for the July 14 primary runoff elections and the November general election amidst COVID-19. They are committed to making sure voters can vote safely, safeguarding poll workers and polling places, and protecting the integrity of elections. While preparing for these challenges, election officials await the outcome of lawsuits that will possibly affect the logistics of conducting their elections.
Election officials have been very proactive in their preparation for the safety of voters by purchasing large amounts of hand sanitizer, plexiglas or plastic shields to provide a barrier between poll workers and voters, pencils to use as disposable styluses for touch screen voting, poll pads in anticipation of increased curbside voting, alcohol swabs and enough personal protection equipment to protect both voters and poll workers. Meanwhile, electronic voting equipment vendors have provided instructions on how to keep the voting machines sanitized after each voter casts their vote.
In addition, election officials will be speaking with the Texas Department of Emergency Management and with their local health officials for guidance on providing additional protection for voters, poll workers and polling places.
The health crisis has definitely shifted the paradigm of how election officials conduct an election. Conducting an election while following the guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will present problems for some if not most counties. For example, observing social distancing guidelines will require voting machines to be spaced six feet apart which may cause fewer voting machines to be available in each polling place.
A high percentage of poll workers are 65 years of age or older and are considered to be in the high risk group for COVID-19. Many poll workers within this age group may not want to take the risk of possible exposure to the virus. County election officials are assessing how they will fill the vacancies created by the expected loss of poll workers in this high risk group.
High Voter Turnout
High voter turnout is expected for the November general election because some cities and schools have postponed their May elections to the November general election date as authorized by the Governor. This will create lengthy ballots. In addition, voters will no longer have the option for straight-ticket voting which was eliminated by Rep. Ron Simmons' (R-Carrollton) House Bill 25, 85th legislative session. With these factors along with social distancing limiting the number of voters in each polling place, some election officials have expressed a concern that there will be lengthy delays as voters make their way through the ballot.
Expand Mail-In Voting
Oregon, Washington and Colorado conduct their voting completely by mail. Many other states are considering expanding mail-in voting for voters who fear exposure to COVID-19. Voters in Texas must cast a ballot in person if they do not qualify for the over 65 exemption and do not have a disability. On April 17, an order was issued by a Travis County district court allowing any voter to apply for a mail-in ballot for the July 14 election date on the grounds of disability due to COVID-19 and concerns over individual and public health. The judge set a date of July 27 “for a status conference on the continued propriety of this Temporary Injunction Order.” The order will be appealed by the state but nothing has been filed as of the date of this publication. Another elections lawsuit concerning voting by mail was filed in the U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas, and is still pending.
In the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic, election officials are challenged by these and many more factors to make their elections secure and efficient.
For more information on elections, contact Nanette Forbes.