With election day on November 3 approaching, the subject of voting by mail due to concerns for COVID-19 has been notable in public discourse. What is required of local voters who want to vote by mail, known as voting by absentee ballot? How is McLennan County ensuring that the vote by mail process this year is accessible and easy to understand? What is the local government doing to ensure that ballots are requested and sent out on time, and are properly returned?
Who is eligible to vote by mail?
Texas is one of five states at this time which has not expanded vote by mail to all voters. Registered voters seeking to vote by mail must have one of the following qualifications: age 65 or older, have a disability, be confined to jail, not be in the county during early voting and on election day.
Texas election code states that “A qualified voter is eligible for early voting by mail if the voter has a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health. Expected or likely confinement for childbirth on election day is sufficient cause to entitle a voter to vote.”
However, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that lack of immunity to COVID-19 does not qualify as a disability. The law is otherwise vague on what constitutes a disability, which allows anyone who claims a disability to qualify. Voters with a disability are not required to provide proof of their disability and need only to fully complete the absentee ballot application.
The final day to register to vote is October 5. Voter registration cards can be submitted in person at the county Elections office or mailed but must be postmarked no later than the 5th.
Requests for an absentee ballot must be received by 5:00 pm October 23. The ballot must be returned or postmarked no later than November 3. To ensure that a mailed application is received in time, it should be mailed several business days in advance.
Early voting has been expanded this year, however a lawsuit pending against Texas Governor Greg Abbott could potentially roll back his executive order, which was issued in July. Currently, early voting dates are set for October 13 through October 30, which extends early voting by six days. During this time voters may cast a ballot at any polling location within McLennan County. This executive order also extends the time voters have to hand-deliver their absentee ballot. Typically, voters may only mail in their ballot once early voting begins, however this year it can be delivered in person until the end of election day.
Requesting and Returning a Valid Ballot
An application to request an absentee ballot can be printed from the county website, obtained in person, or a request can be made by calling the McLennan County Elections Office to have them mail out an application. Voters wanting to use a computer to print their application at one of the Waco public libraries will need to schedule their visit in advance due to COVID-19 library guidelines. Additionally, voters can request an application through the Texas Secretary of State’s website which will then be mailed to them.
Once an application is received the Elections office can take up to a week to mail out a ballot, which does not include the time it takes for the postal service to deliver it.
Voters requesting a ballot due to being outside of the county during the election must have their ballots mailed to an address outside of the county.
Active duty members of the U.S. Armed Forces, their spouse, and dependents, or a citizen residing outside of the United State and claiming McLennan County as their legal residence who are absent from the county during the election may vote by Federal Post Card Application.
The absentee ballot application must be fully completed and signed to be considered valid. This information includes full name, address, date of birth, reason for voting by mail, and checking the box for the November Election.
Both an application and absentee ballot may be mailed through the postal service at the voter’s expense (a stamp and envelope) or can be delivered to the McLennan County Elections Office. It is possible to fax or email an application, however voters are still required to mail or deliver the form and it must be received within four business days to be considered valid.
When delivering an application or absentee ballot to the elections office, voters will be required to come inside the office and present a required form of photo ID. Only the voter may deliver their ballot. No one else is permitted to deliver their ballot for them. An ID is not required if the ballot is mailed to the Elections office. Acceptable forms of photo ID include Texas Driver License, Texas Election Identification Certificate, Texas Personal Identification Card, Texas Handgun License, United States Military Identification Card, United States Citizenship Certificate, or United States Passport.
Will absentee voting be expanded?
A lawsuit has been filed against the state to expand absentee voting eligibility to all voters, however the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the expansion, which centered around the 26th Amendment and age discrimination. This overturned a ruling by a lower federal court in May which expanded absentee voting. The case could be heard by the Supreme Court of the United States, though it may not be until after the election.
Has McLennan County taken any extra steps this year?
McLennan County Elections Administrator Kathy Wolfe declined to comment regarding what, if any steps the county has taken this year to ensure that absentee voting is accessible and easy to understand; instead directing voters to review the information on the county website. Voters with questions about any part of the process can also call the Elections office at (254) 757-5043.
Originally published by Act Locally Waco