Vote By Mail Is Limited In Texas, But It Could Help Vulnerable People As Coronavirus Spreads

Mar 13, 2020

As the coronavirus spreads in Texas, older people and people with underlying health issues are being asked to isolate themselves, which could make voting in upcoming elections tricky.

Election officials and voting groups say they hope those individuals consider applying for a ballot by mail ahead of special elections and local runoffs in May.

Texas has one of the most restrictive vote-by-mail laws in the country, but it is open to some of the state's most vulnerable populations.

Grace Chimene, the president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, says she hopes the state and counties encourage eligible voters to mail in their ballots.

In Texas, people over 65 can apply for mail-in ballots, so the state’s older population can obtain a ballot ahead of elections.

People with underlying health issues can also apply. Whether those people qualify, however, largely depends on the county election officials who administer elections in the state.

Chimene said it’s possible many people with some health issues could qualify as disabled, which is one of the categories of people allowed to vote by mail here, but those qualifications could be clearer.

“I would like the secretary of state’s office to really explain who qualifies, who can vote absentee,” Chimene said. “I think it’s not super clear.”

Travis County Clerk Dana Debouvoir said that a disability can be a “fungible” thing that changes often throughout a person’s life. She says this could be a category that would allow people who should stay away from large groups because of COVID-19 concerns to vote at home.

“Here at the elections office we are not doctors,” Debouvoir said. “So if you say on one of those forms that you have a disability, we are going to believe you. I am not going to reject an application for ballot by mail on the basis that I think or don’t think someone has a disability. That’s not going to work right now.”

Chimene said she thinks state officials should make it clear if “sick” or disabled could apply to many of these voters who have underlying health issues, like a chronic disease or immunodeficiency.

“What qualifies as sick should be something that we are encouraging the secretary of state to expand on,” Chimene said.

In general, Texas’ mail-in ballot program is among the most restrictive in the country. There are only four categories of people who can vote, and even among those groups of people, the program is not widely used. Debouvoir said only 10% to 15% of voters over 65 in Travis County currently vote by mail.

Josh Levin, the election protection fellow at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the ballot-by-mail program is also not working very well for the people it is supposed to serve.

For example, he said applications are often rejected because signatures don’t match, and many times voters are not even notified if an application is rejected until after an election.

“It’s kind of archaic in the sense that you have to prove with a valid reason why you're worthy of a vote by mail,” Levin said. “And then, even then, you have to be lucky that your vote is counted.”   

Levin said state lawmakers should consider loosening restrictions on vote by mail, so the state’s program is more similar to the rest of the country.

“We have the resources right now to be able to loosen the restrictions on vote-by-mail,” he said. “We have the moral authority … to make sure people’s right to vote is not impeded.”