Hays County braces for primary runoff election amid COVID-19

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Rebecca Harrell

According to Hays County Elections Administrator Jennifer Anderson, polling stations for the July 14 primary runoff are adequately equipped with staff and personal protective equipment, but she said the much larger November election may bring complications.

Carson Ganong and Daniel Weeks

Early voting is currently underway in Hays County for the July 14 primary runoff election amid rising cases of COVID-19, prompting polling places throughout the county to take precautions to keep voters and poll workers safe.

In the six polling locations open for early voting, poll workers routinely sanitize tables and voting equipment, sneeze guards have been installed and hand sanitizer is provided for everyone.

Voters are also given gloves to wear to prevent direct contact with voting equipment. In accordance with state law, curbside voting is available for voters who are physically unable to enter a polling location. Hays County Elections Administrator Jennifer Anderson expects polling locations will follow similar procedures during the November general election.

“We’re going to be practicing a lot of these same health and safety measures [in November], not just for [COVID-19], but for the flu and for everything,” Anderson said. “I think we’re all a little more health-conscious when it comes to not transferring germs and viruses.”

Larry Thompson, who has worked in Hays County as a poll worker for the past four years, says communication is an unexpected challenge that has risen among poll workers due to precautions over COVID-19.

“The biggest difference, in my experience, has been that we are all wearing masks, including the public,” Thompson said. “When you are standing almost 12 feet apart and you have a mask on, it’s very difficult to communicate because it’s muffled and because you can’t see body language.”

Anderson says although polling locations have plenty of poll workers and personal protective equipment (PPE) for the current runoff election, she expects things to be more difficult in November because there will be more workers, voters and polling locations.

While the newly introduced health and safety measures have had little impact on wait times in the runoff election, Anderson predicts they will slow down lines in the general election.

“Don’t wait until election day to come out and vote,” Anderson said.

As of July 8, 4,117 mail-in ballots have been returned for the July 14 primary. The Hays County requirements for mail-in voting state any individual is eligible to request and receive a ballot by mail if any of the following conditions prevent them from voting in-person:

  • 65 years of age or older
  • Disability
  • Expected absence from the county during both the early voting period and on election day. The ballot must be mailed to an address outside the county.
  • Confinement in jail and not finally convicted of a felony

The state of Texas defines “disability” in this context as a sickness or physical condition that prevents a voter from voting in person. In May, the Texas Supreme Court determined that a lack of immunity to COVID-19 does not fall under the state’s definition of disability and cannot be cited as a reason to use mail-in voting.

While more limited than mail-in voting, curbside voting is an option for voters in Hays County who are unable to or are uncomfortable with entering a polling location. When voting curbside, a poll worker brings a ballot to the voter, who waits in her, his or their car outside the polling location.

“We are really accommodating a population who are highly sensitive to this virus and don’t want to expose themselves,” Thompson said. “They’re fearful of going to the supermarket or the local fast-food restaurant, but they want to vote. And we encourage that.”

However, according to Anderson, curbside voting slows down the voting process inside the polling location significantly, so she asks people to use it only if it is necessary rather than just for convenience. People wishing to make use of curbside voting should call their local election office for assistance.

On June 26, the Supreme Court declined a bid from state Democrats to expand mail-in voting to all Texas voters, providing no reasoning in the order. More recently, the high court declined to fast-track a bid from state Democrats to expand mail-in voting, leaving the current system in place for the July 14 primary runoff.

This latest development sends the bid down to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. If state Democrats push any further developments in the fight to expand voting by mail in the November election, they will have to occur at the traditionally conservative court.

Blake Farrar, Texas State political science instructor, says Texas is one of the “very few states” that has fought “tooth and nail” against any type of vote-by-mail expansion.

“There seem to be two sides, those who tend to want to err on the side of equal voting rights and access to the polls, and those who may be concerned with voter fraud and some concerns about the logistical administration right of expanding mail-in now in such a close period to the voting,” Farrar said.

Farrar says it may be in the state’s interest to play out the mail-in expansion process to maintain the state’s conservative ideals in the November election.

“Texas historically has been very conservative and traditionalist on voting,” Farrar said. “Going back through history, whether it’s poll taxes, literacy tests, an all-white primary or some might even include a voter ID requirement, Texas historically makes it harder for people to vote.”

A major criticism of mail-in voting is the potential for voter fraud. While Farrar indicates voter fraud does tend to occur with mail-in voting, he said this type of fraud is insignificant when it comes to results.

“The same [voter fraud debate] came up when voter ID was being debated at the state level,” Farrar said. “Mail ballots tend to be a little bit less secure and maybe a little bit more open to fraud. So while there is some truth to the fact that it does exist, it is very rare, and in [probably] 99.9% of Texas elections, the number of mail-in ballots is not enough to sway an election one way or another.”

More information on election locations, times and procedures can be found on the Hays County elections website.


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