The May 26 primary election runoffs will be delayed until July in response to the growing outbreak of the new coronavirus in Texas under an order signed Friday by Gov. Greg Abbott.
Abbott signed the postponement under the emergency powers of his previous statewide disaster declaration. Dozens of runoffs are ongoing for party nominations to congressional and local offices. The most prominent is the contest between former Air Force helicopter pilot MJ Hegar and state Sen. Royce West of Dallas for the Democratic nomination to take on Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.
The elections are now scheduled for July 14; early voting will begin July 6.
The fate of the elections has been in doubt for days as Republicans and Democrats argued over whether to postpone them — as the GOP preferred — or hold them as scheduled but allow for universal voting by mail, as the Democrats want.
Asked earlier in the week if he was considering expanding mail-in balloting, Abbott responded, “Everything’s on the table.”
Abbott acknowledged the disagreement during a virtual town hall Thursday night and said talks were ongoing. But the negotiations ultimately proved fruitless for Democrats, who had called for a massive expansion of voting by mail in the state so that the primary runoff could be conducted as an all-mail election.
Voting by mail is fairly limited in the state. To be eligible under typical circumstances, a voter has to be 65 years or older, have a disability or illness, be out of the county during the election period, or be confined in jail.
The chairman of the state GOP said Thursday night that his party was not on board with an expansion of voting by mail.
County election officials across the state were already facing significant hurdles to pull off a traditional election if the current circumstances — including limits on public gatherings and the ongoing closures of locations that typically serve as polling sites — were still true in May. In some counties, officials had lost polling locations that were supposed to go up at assisted living centers and residential care facilities, home to Texans among the most susceptible to the virus. Other officials said they had heard from schools, sometimes the only viable voting sites in a precinct, that wanted to pull out from serving as polling locations given the coronavirus outbreak.
Election administrators were also bracing for a depleted workforce as health officials extort older people and those with underlying medical conditions to self-isolate because they are considered high risk. The average age of poll workers in some parts of the state hovers in the late 60s.
Before Abbott's announcement, Texas Democrats instead turned to the state courts Friday to push for expanding mail-in voting.
In a lawsuit filed in Travis County district court, the Democrats asked a judge to declare that the portion of the Texas election code that allows voters to qualify for a mail-in ballot if they have a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents them from appearing in person without the likelihood of “injuring the voter’s health” currently applies to to any voter in Texas if the voter believes "they should practice social distancing in order to hinder" the spread of the new coronavirus.
The governor issued a proclamation earlier this week to allow municipalities to delay local elections scheduled for May 2 until November. Notably, individual municipalities will still have to act to postpone their elections, suggesting Abbott concluded he did not have that power to order those postponements himself.