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What should we do about the runoffs?

With coronavirus concerns now shutting down all kinds of public events and other large gatherings, it’s more than fair to wonder what the risks are of conducting the primary runoffs in the usual fashion. This post on Indivisible Houston suggests a path forward.

Runoff elections are coming soon, and while I understand commercial events being cancelled, I am absolutely opposed to the cancellation of democracy. Unfortunately, if people are stuck inside for the next month or two, we may have either public health issues or fear weighing down voter turnout by keeping people from going to the polls unless they are eligible to vote by mail.

One approach we may be able to take as a state to ensure people can vote is to demand access to vote by mail for all residents. The Governor of Texas can likely make that happen by a state of emergency or special session. Harris County and other counties can also advocate for such a solution or similar solutions; our county clerk, county attorney, and commissioners court are capable of coming up with a game plan, too.

I understand this is not the foremost concern for everyone in the county because we’re all trying to make sure our county is healthy and that people have their basic needs met. But I also think it’s important to protect democracy. The ballot is too important to be denied, even amidst chaos.

If you agree with me, please call the Governor’s office, your state rep, and your county level officials to demand a solution to the issue.
Below is a script and some of their information. You can call, email, tweet, or preferably do two or all three.

“Hello, my name is ________. I am a constituent and I want to encourage you to find solutions for our May runoff election that would allow all voters to vote by mail and otherwise ensure access to the polls in a way that accounts for the public health crisis.

Please tally my opinion.

Thank you.”

-Governor Greg Abbott – (512) 463-2000
https://gov.texas.gov/apps/contact/opinion.aspx
@gregabbott_tx

-Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo
713-274-7000
Twitter: @Lina4HC

-Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis
713-274-1000
@RodneyEllis

-Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia
713-755-6220
@adriangarciahtx

-Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack
713-755-6306

-Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner R. Jack Cagle
713-755-6444

-Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman
713-274-8600
@dtrautman

Find your state rep and senator here and call them.

I should note up front that primary runoffs have much, much lower turnout (see item 4) than regular primaries. There won’t be any lines to vote in the runoffs. You’ll breeze in and out and may not see anyone but the election workers. That said, those election workers will see and interact with plenty of people over the course of the day, and of course we’ll all be using the same voting machines. Neither of those is a great idea in the time of pandemic, and it’s not at all hard to imagine that turnout could be suppressed even more than usual just from people’s natural fear of going to the polling places.

So given all that, switching to an all vote-by-mail primary runoff seems like an excellent way to mitigate the risk. Greg Abbott would have to call a special session to amend the existing law to allow for this, and I would hope that would be a notion that anyone could get behind. I mean, these are primary runoffs, so there’s no question of partisan advantage, just of public health. As a practical matter, this would have to be done by April 11, as that day is the deadline for sending out mail ballots to overseas voters. There’s time, but let’s not dilly-dally.

(And yes, there would be legit health concerns about getting all 181 legislators plus their staff and journalists and whoever else into the Capitol at this time. I don’t know what they can do to mitigate that. At least they can minimize the amount of time they’d have to all be in one room.)

Assuming that could be done, the next question would be how to get the mail ballots out. Normally, people have to request a mail ballot, if they are eligible. Both parties have programs to help people with that, but this is a much bigger scope, and also a more complex one since anyone who voted in March can only vote in the same party’s runoff. I would advocate that this law mandate that anyone who voted in Round One automatically be sent a mail ballot for the runoff, with anyone who didn’t vote in Round One being eligible to request whichever ballot they might want (as they are allowed to do). That would likely serve as an experiment in how much an all-vote-by-mail election would affect turnout, because I’d expect a lot of people who otherwise might have ignored the runoff would fill in their ballot and send it back. That might cause some heartburn in the Lege, especially (but maybe not exclusively) on the Republican side, and would likely be the biggest point of contention other than whether or not to do this at all. Also, counties might reasonably ask for some funding to cover all those mail ballots, as they would be expected to send out far more than they normally would, and someone has to pay for the postage and handling. I would argue the state should at least kick something in for that – there’s plenty of money available – but again, this would surely be a sore point for some.

(It may not be entirely up to us. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has introduced a bill that would require all states to offer voters a vote-by-mail option, or to allow for the drop-off of hand-marked paper ballots, once 25 percent of states and/or territories declare a state of emergency related to the coronavirus. The bill would kick in $500 million in federal funding to help states make this happen. It likely has no chance of passing, though, and even if it did it’s hard to imagine it happening in time for our May 26 runoff. But at least someone else is thinking about it.)

Anyway. I’m convinced this is a good option – you should feel free to tell me in the comments why I’m wrong about that – and should at least be up for discussion, if not action. And I agree, if you think this is a good idea, now would be the time to make some calls and express that opinion to Abbott and your legislators. Time is short, so get to it now or forever lose the chance.

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12 Comments

  1. voter_worker says:

    I didn’t see any mention of the May 2 election. It has no less validity than the party runoffs. Another concern is how the two elections will be staffed. Election workers have to show up at physical locations day after day in service to a relentless election calendar. If normal workflow in the VR and CC offices were to be disrupted by staff absences due to COVID-19, the implications for any form of election process are worrisome. Also not mentioned is the contractual agreement between the parties and the County Clerk. It’s not unreasonable to expect that any process change will result in immediate lawsuits. The District B imbroglio would be simple in comparison.

  2. John Donne says:

    Interesting thought. I looked at your page because I realized the Democrats and REpublicans are holding county/district conventions all across the state on March 21. This is where delegates are selected to attend the state conventions and then the national conventions, and this is where platforms begin to take shape. Moreover, all the other political parties are holding similar conventions, but they have the added task of actually nominating people–similar to the Iowa Caucuses.

    I get these conventions only interest real party activists. However, with some counties banning large gatherings and other people reluctant to go to large gatherings, I guess nobody has thought about this problem either. I’m sure nobody has planned how to conduct a convention on-line.

  3. brad says:

    The tin foil hats should be able to protect the GOP convention goers.

  4. Joel says:

    Great idea. But since it relies on the state government to do something, forget it.

    Besides, what do these officials care about special elections and runoffs? They already have their spots.

  5. Voter worker, it may already be too late to do this for the May 2 elections, given the lead time needed for mail ballots. Looking at the Harris County Clerk website, there are no regular May elections in even-numbered years that they run, so I’d say the impact for that part of the cycle would be much smaller.

    Agree that the parties would have to buy into this idea. I don’t see that as an insurmountable obstacle.

  6. Bill Daniels says:

    Did anyone bother to watch the presidential presser today? By May, this whole scaremongering show will be drawing to a close, a combination of what’s going to be done, the drive through testing, etc., warmer weather, and the natural petering out that has already started to occur in China and Italy. The smart play for our election officials is to plan for business as usual with the May runoff.

    Look at the plan of attack, look at the novel public/private partnerships that were announced. The combined juggernaut of the US has been readied and massed to go to war against the Wu flu. Compare and contrast to our mealy mouthed response to swine flu back in the day. I’ll probably never convince anyone here that cancelling the rodeo was wrong, but if, after today, anyonewho thinks the Trump administration is flailing helplessly, with no plan, is just lying to themselves.

    And Brad, Hell yes I’ll be at the next Trump rally in Houston, and I expect it to be standing room only with thousands outside…..just like the last one.

  7. Brad says:

    Bill aka Alaska,
    Based on the cluster Trump presser today and the numbskulls (including Pence) touching each other and being in close proximity to the idiot-in-chief who is not following protocol after his exposure to a confirmed COVid 19 case I would think you’d be crying about the upcoming Pelosi presidency after Trump and Pence expire.

  8. Manny says:

    Bill you need to take that Tin Foil Hat off. With Trump and the other idiots in control it will be like the war we have going in Afghanistan.

    Bill I still expect the Russian Cheeto to drop out and I doubt that Trump will have another rally anytime soon in Texas, maybe one of the few Republican states that don’t test as they think it is a hoax.

  9. Manny says:

    maybe in one of the

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