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Texas is voting on Tuesday. And even as the state’s coronavirus caseload has gone through the roof, state Republicans have done everything in their power to make it harder, not easier, to vote.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton declared that fear of the coronavirus isn’t enough to get a mail ballot under state law and promised to zealously enforce a law that only allows senior citizens and those with disabilities to vote by mail. The state’s Republican-dominated supreme court sided with his interpretation of the law, and the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court refused to force the state to allow mail voting.
“It would be a probing and invasive inquiry to determine someone’s health status, but what Texas officials have done is they’ve dangled the threat of criminal prosecution to nonetheless discourage people from voting the way of absentee ballot," said Kristen Clarke, president of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “It’s a naked voter-suppression attempt.”
That leaves voters in a confusing spot as they attempt to vote in Tuesday’s primary runoff elections, which will determine the Democratic nominee who'll run against Republican Sen. John Cornyn, candidates of both parties in a number of key House contests, and a plethora of other Texas races.
Although the Texas Supreme Court sided with Paxton’s reading that fear of the coronavirus isn’t enough justification to vote by mail, the justices ruled that voters could decide for themselves whether they were disabled. That left a murky “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in place. Voters can check the disability box to get a ballot, but if it’s proven they did so because of a fear of catching the coronavirus, they could face prosecution from the state’s litigious attorney general.
The state experienced huge problems during its March primary, as some sites failed to open in time and voters were forced to wait in line for as long as six hours to cast ballots. The biggest disasters happened mostly in poorer and heavily minority areas. And that vote took place largely before the coronavirus was a widely acknowledged problem, which adds another dimension of possible chaos to voting on Tuesday.
The state pushed back its primary runoff elections, originally scheduled for May 26, to give officials time to prepare for an election during the coronavirus. But the situation is worse now than it was in late May, as Texas has more active cases and one of the country’s worst coronavirus outbreaks. As of Monday, the state had reported almost 266,000 total COVID cases, fourth-highest in the country, and multiple days last week the state set new daily records for the number of new coronavirus cases, with almost 10,000 new cases reported on multiple days last week.
“With the enormous spike in cases of COVID-19 all across the state of Texas, it it really is putting people at risk to show up at a polling place, when there’s a long line or really any line to vote, and it’s even worse if people aren’t wearing masks,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa told VICE News. “It’s almost criminal what the Republicans are doing with respect to their prohibition on vote by mail.”
In an early June letter, Paxton explicitly threatened outside groups with “criminal sanctions” if they encouraged people to vote by mail who don’t qualify under his interpretation of the law, while warning that Texas law makes it illegal to vote absentee under “false pretenses,” a signal that he might go after individual voters as well.
Paxton’s office said it “cannot comment on potential or pending investigations or prosecutions” when asked if it might target individual voters for prosecution, while pointing VICE News back to previous statements.
“Universal mail-in ballots, which are notoriously vulnerable to fraud, would only lead to greater election fraud and disenfranchise lawful voters,” Paxton said in one statement that lauded a court ruling that blocked people from being able to vote because they feared coronavirus.
This isn’t an idle threat: Texas has aggressively prosecuted individuals for voting fraud in the past, including former felons who thought they were allowed to vote.
To add health risk to injury, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) declared that most of the state would have to wear masks for public activities due to a spike in the state’s coronavirus cases — but he exempted voting places among the few places where that rule doesn’t apply. That means that people can’t be forced to wear masks while voting, which puts both poll workers and other voters at potential risk.
He argued that it was people’s constitutional right to vote, and they couldn’t be barred from doing so for not wearing a mask — ignoring concerns that people’s fear of the pandemic could scare them away from the voting booth.
“We don’t want to deny somebody the ability to go vote simply because they don’t have a mask,” Abbott said.
The state did expand early in-person voting by a few days to try to take the pressure off voting sites and decrease election-day crowding and lines. At the same time, some counties have struggled to keep their polling places open, even for Tuesday’s low-turnout elections. In Bexar and Tarrant Counties, two of the state’s most populous, local officials decided to close a handful of polling locations because they couldn’t find poll-workers willing to show up and risk their health after Abbott’s decision to not require masks.
State Republicans are shrugging off the concerns about not wearing masks. The state Republican Party had also insisted on holding a massive in-person state convention in Houston, the epicenter of the state's coronavirus outbreak. The city's Democratic mayor barred them from doing so, a move that was upheld by the state supreme court on Monday.
“There’s no real difference between the risk of voting in person and going to the grocery store,” said Travis County Republican Party Chairman Matt Mackowiak.
The impending chaos sets up some messy scenarios for Tuesday’s primary runoffs, as voters struggle to figure out how to vote safely — and whether or not they’re allowed to cast a mail ballot. And it foreshadows possible disaster in the fall’s presidential election, when voter turnout will be dramatically higher.
“If things don’t change drastically, we’re going to have huge problems in November,” Anthony Gutierrez, the executive director of the good-government group Common Cause Texas.
Cover: An early voter leaves a polling site, Tuesday, July 7, 2020, in San Antonio. Polling site workers are wearing masks and taking other precautions due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)