DRC_Editorial

This editorial first appeared in the Austin American-Statesman. Guest editorials don’t necessarily reflect the Denton Record-Chronicle’s opinions.

It’s hard to imagine a normal election day at the polls while so many of us are hunkered down at home under coronavirus-related mandates to avoid gatherings of 10 people or more.

Gov. Greg Abbott recently pushed back the May 26 runoff elections to July 14, which we hope will ensure better participation in the important congressional, legislative and local races on the ballot. But his action underscored a long-running problem: Texas is woefully behind the curve in providing broader vote-by-mail access that could have kept our elections functioning normally in these extraordinary times.

Texas has one of the nation’s stingiest policies on absentee ballots, allowing them only for seniors, disabled people and those in jail or traveling out of town on election day. By contrast, 28 states allow any registered voter to request an absentee ballot for any reason, and five states conduct their elections entirely by mail-in ballots. Not surprisingly, the states allowing no-excuse absentee ballots saw voter participation in 2016 that was, on average, 10 percentage points higher than in other states like Texas.

Unfortunately, Abbott has resisted efforts to make absentee voting more available. In 2017, he vetoed a bill by state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, that would have allowed small communities to conduct runoff elections exclusively with mail-in ballots. Abbott squandered an opportunity for elections officials to scale up absentee voting in a secure, efficient way that could have helped many Texans now.

The Texas Democratic Party last week sued the secretary of state and Travis County elections officials, seeking vote-by-mail access for all voters in the runoff elections. Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir told us the challenges of suddenly switching to a new format are significant: Educating voters on how to request, fill out and return a new kind of ballot. Hiring and training workers to handle these ballots. Even getting extra equipment to scan a massive volume of absentee ballots, which normally account for about 10% of the votes cast in a low-turnout election.

“Most states that do [a vote-by-mail election] plan two to three years in advance,” DeBeauvoir told us.

The courts will decide what’s necessary for the July runoff. But it’s clear officials need to be working now on the logistics to ensure the general election in November remains accessible to voters, without delay, whatever the coming months may bring.

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