There is one way, if it is approved.
Thousands of Harris County voters who recently have tested positive for coronavirus and now are quarantined should be allowed to vote online in the primary runoff election, County Attorney Vince Ryan argued in an emergency court filing Thursday.
The novel voting method has never been used in Harris County, but was permitted for the small-scale North Texas Ebola outbreak in 2014.
If approved by a state district judge, the estimated 10,000 residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 after the July 2 deadline to apply for a mail ballot would be allowed to submit a ballot via email. Forcing infected residents to vote in person would risk “putting thousands of other voters at risk,” Ryan wrote.
“The effect of this is to leave thousands of Harris County voters with a choice: 1, violate their quarantine and risk exposing poll workers and other voters to a deadly virus, or 2, become disenfranchised and lose their constitutional right to vote,” Ryan said. “That is a choice no Texan should be forced to make.”
A hearing [was] scheduled in the 80th District Court for 4 p.m. Friday. Ryan filed the brief on behalf of County Clerk Christopher Hollins.
The Dallas County elections administrator in 2014 obtained a court order allowing residents quarantined by the Ebola outbreak to submit mail ballots via email.
The Texas Election Code also permits counties to receive emailed ballots from some active duty members of the military stationed overseas.
Ryan said Harris County’s request follows COVID-19 elections guidance issued in April by Secretary of State Ruth Hughs, which said counties may want to consider seeking court orders to expand voting options for quarantined voters. A spokesman for the secretary of state did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
I admit, I did not know that this was a possible option. It makes sense, and in practical terms it’s likely that only a small number of people would actually vote in this fashion. I mean, even with record-breaking turnout in this primary runoff, we’re still going to fall short of ten percent of all registered voters in Harris County. More to the point, given that most of the people who would have voted in this election already have, we’re talking maybe two or three percent turnout among those who have not yet cast a ballot, so maybe 200 or 300 people total. I’d still take the under on that bet. But the principle is solid, and if the law allows for this, then by all means let’s do it. I assume we’ll get a quick ruling on this, I’ll keep my eyes open for confirmation of that and will update this post as needed.
UPDATE: And the answer is no.
A state district judge on Friday denied a request by Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins to allow thousands of voters who recently tested positive for coronavirus, and now are quarantined, to vote online in the primary runoff election.
The novel voting method never has been used in Harris County, but was permitted for the small-scale North Texas Ebola outbreak in 2014.
Judge Larry Weiman, however, said he shared concerns raised by the Harris County Republican Party that online voting was not secure. Weiman, a Democrat, also said at the emergency telephone hearing that the county clerk had not produced an example of a voter being disenfranchised by exposure to coronavirus.
“The plaintiff hasn’t shown any injured party,” Weiman said.
The Harris County Republican Party and Texas Attorney General’s office argued against the plan. Assistant Attorney General Anne Mackin said Hollins’ proposal amounted to a “rewrite of the Texas Election Code,” which already provides ill voters a method to vote by mail after missing the application deadline, so long as they are able to physically produce a doctor’s note.
Hollins sought to have that requirement waived in favor of an emailed statement certifying a voter has been exposed to COVID, saying infected residents or members of their household risk infecting county employees by delivering a form to a public building.
“It’s inappropriate to substitute a new process,” Mackin said.
The Election Code permits counties to receive emailed ballots from some active duty members of the military stationed overseas. Attorney and state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Baytown, and attorney Kevin Fulton argued on behalf of the Republicans that method requires service members to use secure email addresses which allow elections administrators to verify their identities.
Weiman said he shared these concerns about security. He invited the Texas Legislature to make changes to the Election Code if lawmakers feel they are needed.
It was a nice idea while it lasted, but there would have been issues. The fact that there were no named voters asking for this is a legitimate point. It would have been very nice to be able to test something like this in a low-stakes primary runoff, in case it’s needed in November, but I think we probably do need to have the Lege address some issues first. There are ways to make this process secure, none of which I suspect would have been available now, and the need for a written-on-paper doctor’s note is obviously archaic. If this experience can serve as a template for updating the relevant bits of the election code, it will still have been a useful exercise.