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Abbott delays primary runoffs

So this was originally going to be a post about what various groups have been advocating for the primary runoffs. And then Greg Abbott went and pushed the runoffs back to July without addressing any of the other concerns that had been raised. So here’s my post about that, and then because I spent a lot of time writing the other post, I’ve included that beneath the fold, so you can see what would have been.

Texas is postponing its May 26 primary runoff elections to mid-July to help prevent community spread of COVID-19, Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Friday.

State officials had been trying to decide whether to convert that election to an all-mail-ballot, but Abbott on Friday said the state will instead move the election.

“Holding the runoff in May would cause the congregation of large gatherings of people in confined spaces and cause numerous election workers to come into close proximity with others,” a statement from Abbott’s office said. “This would threaten the health and safety of many Texans.”

The election will be moved to July 14 with early voting starting on July 6.

[…]

Some lawmakers had been pushing Abbott to convert the May runoff election into an all-mail election. Because the turnout out is typically low, they said Texas could easily get ballots to people who want to vote in the runoffs.

I mean, this could be adequate. Lord knows, we all hope that we’re finished with social distancing and coronavirus is more or less under control by then. If it’s not, though, then what’s Plan B? I can understand why Abbott might have wanted to take the easy way out, but he doesn’t really have control over that. Hope for the best, I guess. Anyway, read on for what this post was going to be. The Trib has more.

The ACLU of Texas writes a letter to Greg Abbott.

First, we encourage you to ensure run-off elections occur on May 26th. There is no reason to delay elections when alternate strategies allow the election to move forward on time and with meaningful participation. There is sufficient time to prepare for a successful election in spite of COVID-19, if the State and counties begin preparing now.

Second, the State can and should give all eligible Texas voters the option of voting by mail. Considering the health risks associated with large crowds, expanding access to mail-in ballots is necessary to allow all voters, regardless of age, health condition and location, to participate in our democratic process. Texas law provides that eligible voters may vote by mail for certain specified reasons, including “disability,” i.e., where “appearing at the polling place” has a “likelihood . . . of injuring the voter’s health.” Pursuant to this definition, the Secretary of State should clarify that due to the unique and extreme health risks caused by COVID-19, all individuals are eligible to vote by mail. The State of Virginia has similarly concluded that during the COVID-19 outbreak all individuals may vote by mail due to “disability or illness.”

To expand the availability of mail-in ballots, the State and counties should be proactive about educating all eligible voters of the option to vote by mail. We are ready to be partners in a wide voter-education campaign that raises awareness about vote by mail and the process for requesting a mail ballot. The State should also consider providing postage-free methods of submitting mail-in ballots and establishing phone and online hotlines to assist eligible voters in completing their ballots. Assistance should be available in the top languages spoken in Texas,including for those language minority groups required by the Voting Rights Act.

Third, we encourage the State to extend the early voting period to two weeks, beginning on Monday, May 11th and ending on Friday, May 22nd, including weekend access to polling locations. Providing voters with more options of times and days to vote will help protect voters and poll-workers as it would allow for smaller gatherings in polling places.

Fourth, we strongly support your efforts to keep voters and election officials safe by providing appropriate protective gear, cleaning supplies, and hand sanitizer at all polling places, and training poll-workers in safety procedures. We are prepared to support an effort to recruit additional poll-workers to help staff extended early voting.

As you consider options for Texas’ upcoming elections, we strongly support a model that includes both vote by mail and in-person voting. While we believe that vote by mail is the safest option for many people, there is a significant risk that Texas’ most vulnerable voting populations will be disenfranchised if the ability to vote in person is removed. Following the steps recommended above, including expanding the optional use of mail-in ballots and extending early voting would alleviate many of the concerns associated with large crowds during the voting process and strike the appropriate balance between ensuring that Texans are able to exercise their right to vote and public health.

This covers some of the ground I talked about here, about how many people could vote by mail now if they asked for it. It also makes explicit what I had implied in that post, which is that there would still need to be in-person voting, and we can deal with the risk factors there in straightforward ways like longer early voting hours and protective gear for election workers. Frankly, this strikes me as a solid proposal and one I would hope people can get behind.

That letter didn’t just come from the ACLU but from an array of interest groups, as reported by Texas Monthly, which notes that right now Abbott et al need a bit of pushing from others to get on with making some decisions.

In the weeks since the first confirmed case of the coronavirus emerged in Texas—reported by public health officials in Fort Bend County the day after Super Tuesday—the state has offered no proposals on how to mitigate the outbreak’s impact at the polls.

“We’ve been in contact with [the state],” said Michael Winn, Director of Elections in Harris County, the most populous county in Texas. “They haven’t responded back.”

Secretary of State director of communications Stephen Chang did not respond to Texas Monthly’s requests for comment.

Abbott and Secretary of State Ruth R. Hughs faced pressure this week from legislators and advocacy groups to take more immediate action addressing those higher-turnout elections—in particular, to expand the state’s vote-by-mail program so that it applies to all Texans.

[…]

Two state legislators—Representative Celia Israel of Austin and Representative Terry Canales of Edinburg—and Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa also sent letters to Abbott on Tuesday, urging him to take similar measures.

Israel formally requested that Abbott schedule a conference call with members of the Texas Senate State Affairs Committee and the House Elections Committee, to discuss potentially postponing the primary runoff elections, as other states have done, or holding them by mail only. She noted that polling locations have the potential to become “a major transmission point” of COVID-19. “This call should take place no later than Friday, March 20th, given the decision-making timeline surrounding these elections,” Israel wrote. A spokesman for Israel said Thursday night that Abbott did not respond to the letter.

Canales noted in his letter that 22 states currently have vote-by-mail programs that apply to all registered voters (three states—Colorado, Oregon, and Washington—have all-mail elections) and called for Texas to adopt such measures.

The Texas Civil Rights Project and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund were among those that sent the letter I cited above to Abbott. Sure would be nice if he could, you know, respond to it.

Meanwhile, Gilberto Hinojosa, the Chair of the Texas Democratic Party, sends a letter to his counterpart James Dickey, Chair of the Texas GOP:

In our conversation this morning, you suggested postponing the election and not immediately making significant changes to our election processes that would address or accommodate voting in the current public health crisis. It is my understanding that your argument was based on the assumption that the public health situation would be considerably improved by June. We do not believe that the available scientific evidence supports these claims but even were they to prove true, we still believe the public education of these few days presents enormous obstacles to voting systems that require in-person contact. As leaders of this state, we believe it is our responsibility to take immediate and decisive action to make plans for this election that allow it to go forward even amid a continued public health crisis.

You also raised concerns about transmission of COVID-19 by mail. However, it is our opinion that we should look to the guidance of the United States Postal Service (USPS) as the source of truth on these issues. To date, the USPS is continuing service and said on March 17, 2020 that there is “currently no evidence that COVID-19 is being spread through the mail.” Therefore, we believe we must immediately move forward planning for a primary runoff election that reduces the need for in-person voting and enhances Texans’ ability to vote by mail.

While it won’t be easy, we are confident that our county election officials and Secretary of State can carry out a meaningful election that ensures the participation of all communities with minimal delays. However, we must immediately provide them the guidance, financial support, and other resources they need in order to do so.

To that end, we will provide you with our proposal for the path forward by noon Monday and look forward to seeing your team’s proposal as well. Rose Clouston on my team will coordinate with Brandon Moore on yours to find a time on Monday afternoon for all of us to discuss these proposals and hopefully chart a joint path forward.

The press release that accompanied this letter here. As the Observer notes, the two parties are not in alignment here.

Earlier this week, the Texas Democratic Party called on Abbott to take action so the runoffs can be conducted entirely via mail-in voting. This would mark an unprecedented expansion of the state’s limited vote-by-mail program, requiring local elections administrators to quickly pull off a massive logistical challenge.

The Texas Republican Party balked at state Democrats’ proposal. State GOP chair James Dickey told the Observer that the logistics required to implement and conduct vote-by-mail would mean “a lot of person-to-person contact via surface,” increasing the risk of exposure to coronavirus.

Instead, the Texas Republican Party said it will ask Abbott to delay the runoffs. “It is our position that the wisest and safest and smoothest way to protect our fellow Texans and their votes is to move the runoff election [back] by a matter of weeks,” Dickey said.

In a statement to the Observer, Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa also acknowledged that the runoff date may need to be pushed back. Still, he insisted that a massive expansion of vote-by-mail is a critical and necessary step.

“Simply hoping the virus will go away and that we can return back to normal is not a plan, it is head in the sand,” Hinojosa said. “We need to begin work on vote-by-mail and other options that do not rely heavily on in-person voting. We need to decide how our primary election will be held and work from there on an appropriate date for the primary election.” Hinojosa also dismissed concerns that the virus could be spread through the mail, pointing to the United States Postal Service’s announcement that the likelihood of catching the disease from handling mail is “very low.”

Both parties will need to come to some kind of agreement, which can be presented to Greg Abbott for implementation. Hopefully, Abbott will express an opinion of his own at some point.

On the matter of state and county officials being able to handle the increase in mail ballots from these proposals, let me say this much. The primary runoffs should be much more of a Democratic affair than a Republican one. Dems have two statewide runoffs, including the Senate runoff, Republicans have none. Democrats have more Congressional runoffs of interest (CDs 03, 10, 17, 22, 24, 31) than Republicans (CDs 13, 17, 22, and 24), plus two high profile State Senate runoffs while the GOP has none. Both parties have one SBOE and seven State House runoffs. Because of the lack of statewide contests, many Republicans will have no races to vote in for May. Going by past history, we’re probably looking at 300K to 500K total runoff votes statewide. Harris County handled 100K mail ballots by itself for the November 2018 and 2016 elections. That Texas Monthly article says that there were 370K mail ballots from the top 30 counties in the November 2018 election. Having an all-mail primary runoff would likely mean more mail ballots than we’re used to seeing in a single race, but not by that much. Doing something like this for November would be a whole ‘nother thing and would require a lot of prep work, but I think doing May as mostly or exclusively mail ballots would not strain the system. Incorporating the hybrid approach the ACLU and others advocate would reduce that risk further. I think that’s the way to go, I think we can handle it without much fuss, and it’s what I’m rooting for at this time.

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