Texas Democrats have a cure-all for our worries about in-person voting in upcoming elections. They want to expand mail-in balloting to include every Texan. Republicans who point to problems with the plan are said to be trying to suppress the vote, or are callously indifferent.
“Voters should not have to choose between their lives or their right to vote,” says Texas Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa.
The truth, of course, is that we all care about the integrity of our elections and the well-being of our neighbors. Mail-in ballots are appropriate for many Texans, but they are not a cure-all for the challenges COVID-19 is creating for Texas elections.
Mail-in balloting involves greater risk to election integrity than in-person voting. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning independent journalism site ProPublica (certainly no organ of the GOP) points out, “Among the possible downsides of a quick transition are increased voter fraud, logistical snafus and reduced turnout among voters who move frequently or lack a mailing address.”
On fraud, Texans deserve to have confidence that their votes count, that they won’t be canceled out by ineligible ballots. Democrats dismiss concerns about fraud, but always with a caveat. They contend voter fraud is almost nonexistent. The left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, for example, calls it both “a myth” and “very rare.” Both can’t be true.
Yet mail-in ballot problems in North Carolina just last year resulted in a congressional election being voided; that’s hardly minor.
Mail-in ballots bypass the Texas voter ID laws. But 81% of Texans support voter ID (including 72% of Democrats), in a 2019 Texas Lyceum poll, The Dallas Morning News reports.
Next, mail-in balloting is also risky for legitimate voters; approximately 33 million mail-in ballots were cast in the 2016 presidential election, for example. Yet, about 400,000 of them didn’t count, according to a report in the Christian Science Monitor. They were thrown out, “having been disqualified for reasons ranging from invalid signatures to simply being late.”
And in Wisconsin, just weeks ago, thousands of ballots went missing, The New York Times reported, arrived late or were never sent at all.
Texas Republicans have worked to expand ballot access, including through mail-in balloting, but Democrats have stood firmly in opposition when prudent measures to increase ballot safety were included.
In 2017, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 5 after contentious debate. The bill provided enhanced protections for elderly and disabled voters, strengthened the signature verification provisions, and established new and enhanced penalties for convicted mail ballot fraud offenders. It also created notification requirements regarding rejected mail ballots to ensure voters had adequate time to respond and “cure” a potentially rejected ballot. In both chambers, only a lone Democrat supported the bill.
California saw a surge in apparent ballot harvesting after it expanded mail-in balloting in 2016. In that state’s November 2018 congressional elections, candidates who had been winning in Election Day votes lost their elections three weeks later, when all of the provisional ballots had been counted.
Ballot harvesting is illegal in Texas — but it still occurs, largely through mail-in balloting. Real Clear Investigations reported on a woman in Starr County who has been arrested multiple times for vote harvesting.
The problem with a panacea is that it never lives up to its promise. Just as one-size-fits-all solutions never really do, a broad prescription for a public policy problem can’t take into account individual circumstances. Texas has 254 counties, and each runs its own elections. Ordering them to expand mail-in balloting would create problems, not solve them.
The good news is that Texas already has the capacity to deal with the COVID-19 effects on our elections. Mail-in ballots are still available for those 65 and over as well as those who are sick or disabled.
And our early voting rules are generous. The extended poll hours will help reduce lines (and help Texans keep their newly acquired social distancing habits). That’s also true of counties that have adopted countywide voting (an increasingly popular option) on Election Day. Smith County, for example, updates its social media throughout the day with info on which polling locations don’t have lines.
There’s no one public health response to the coronavirus. Instead, we know that a whole slate of responses, from hand-washing to limiting social contact, are needed to deal with the outbreak.
In the same way, there’s no single remedy for the difficulties the virus brings to our upcoming elections. Mail-in balloting is no cure-all.