On Wednesday, August 19, 2020, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins sent a formal request to Governor Greg Abbott requesting that Governor Abbott extend the deadline by which county election administrators can receive mail ballots. The deadline for most mail ballots is currently either 7:00 p.m. on Election Day (November 3) or, if postmarked by Election Day, 5:00 p.m. the day after Election Day (November 4). To alleviate Harris County residents’ fears after recent news coverage detailing expected delays from the United States Postal Service, the Harris County Clerk’s Office seeks to extend the deadline by which all mail ballots postmarked on or before November 3 may be received by election officials to at least Monday, November 9, 2020 –– the same deadline that currently exists in Texas for military voters.
“This November, we are predicting record voter turnout, and my office is receiving thousands of vote-by-mail applications,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “As the situation stands now, a mail ballot postmarked on Election Day is unlikely to be received in our office the following day. We know that voting by mail is the safest way to vote ––I hope that the Governor accepts this request to avoid disenfranchising thousands of Harris County voters due to mail delays beyond our control.”
He tweeted about this as well. Given the great uncertainties caused by the ongoing sabotage of the postal service, it makes all kinds of sense to allow ballots that were postmarked by Election Day be received up to the statutory deadline for military and overseas ballots. You know how every time there’s a really close election and a call for a recount, they wait a few days until military and overseas ballots are all in? That’s because the election isn’t really over until that happens. If we’re waiting for those ballots anyway, why not wait for the likely small number of non-military or overseas ballots that may have gotten delayed in delivery? Especially this year, of all years.
Among other things, that would make life a lot easier for local election officials.
Data gathered by the Tribune from nine major counties — Harris, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, Collin, Denton, El Paso, Fort Bend and Hidalgo — showed that at least 2,639 of 198,947 votes cast by mail-in ballot [in the July elections] went uncounted. (Dallas County did not provide data.) Some were derailed by mistakes, like returning ballots without a signature. But Harris County alone accounted for 2,034 ballots that weren’t counted based on tardiness. Overall, at least 2,155 ballots went uncounted because they arrived too late.
For most people voting absentee, Texas counties must receive completed ballots by Election Day. If they’re postmarked by 7 p.m. that day, they’ll be counted if they come in the next day by 5 p.m. The U.S. Postal Service recommends that Texans ask for mail-in ballots no later than 15 days out from that due date. But state law allows voters to request the ballots up until a week and a half before Election Day, so some may not receive their ballots until it’s too late to mail them back in time.
The misalignment between the state’s deadlines and USPS processes is hardly novel, but the ill-matched timelines will be newly tested this general election as more Texans are expected to try to vote by mail to avoid the health risks of voting in person. At the same time, a troubled U.S. Postal Service is facing cost-cutting measures and ensuing mail delivery delays.
Although they represent a small sample in a low-turnout election, the mailing woes that kept voters from being heard in the July runoffs are spurring local election officials and voting rights advocates to work to minimize similar problems come November.
“What we have been telling voters is that [voting by mail] is the safest and most secure way to vote, period, in a global pandemic,” said Ali Lozano, voting rights outreach coordinator with the Texas Civil Rights Project. But some local officials “are fully aware that they have to do something because there is just no possible way they can maintain the same infrastructure and handle the inevitable influx of ballots they’re going to get.”
During the runoffs, the state’s deadline for requesting mail-in ballots — 11 days out from Election Day — left a troop of Harris County election workers, including County Clerk Chris Hollins, working furiously on the Sunday of July Fourth weekend to send ballots to the last of the voters whose applications had come in.
The county had been told by the U.S. Postal Service that Texans hoping to have their votes counted should send back their completed ballots at least one week before the state’s deadline for accepting mail-in votes. On that timeline, the Harris County voters whose applications for ballots were being processed that Sunday would possibly end up receiving their ballots on the same day they were already supposed to be on their way back to the county. And that was under the best-case scenario.
“We were well ahead of the cutoff legally, but in a COVID scenario, meeting the legal deadline is not helpful to voters,” Hollins said. “It leaves them very much in a pinch.”
Harris County’s to-do list for November includes purchasing more mail-sorting equipment and hiring hundreds of temporary workers who will be solely focused on processing voting-by-mail applications and ballots. Harris County posted voting-by-mail numbers in a typically small runoff election approaching general election figures, Hollins said, and the county will continue to encourage eligible voters to use the vote-by-mail option in the fall. With thousands of ballot styles to draw up for the general election, the complex endeavor requires ballot requests to be processed by hand.
The runoff election “was taxing on our system, so thinking about an election that’s going to be seven or eight times larger than that in the fall, our operation has to be seven or eight times larger,” said Hollins.
But not all Texas counties can attain that sort of exponential growth. In the mostly Republican county of Aransas — population 24,763 — the elections department is typically a two-person office. During the March primary, it took Election Administrator Michele Carew and her deputy eight days to get through mail-in ballot requests from Republican voters while still preparing for in-person voting.
Aided by the election funding her county received through the federal coronavirus relief package, Carew hired an election worker solely dedicated to mail-in ballots. But Aransas is facing a continuous stream of applications that will need to be fulfilled while the county prepares to manage six extra days of early voting that Gov. Greg Abbott ordered for the fall.
“Every day, we get up to a dozen requests,” Carew said. “Before, it used to be far and few between.”
Neither Abbott’s office nor the Texas secretary of state’s office responded to questions on what guidance the state is providing to local election officials on handling the dueling deadlines.
Big surprise there. This would be a small change, it would likely affect a small number of ballots, and it would make the system fairer and easier for the people who run it to operate. Seems pretty straightforward to me.