In 2020, COVID-19 has made things complicated. Voting and elections, especially in Harris County, are no exception. And as many have realized a mere 30 days from the election, the pandemic has caused a shortage in poll workers and volunteers across the state of Texas. This is because historically, most poll workers have been seniors and concerns about the virus may keep them from their usual duties.
The November 2019 elections had various issues ranging from severe delays of real election results to voters receiving incorrect ballots at the voting locations. The special elections earlier this year had more issues including voter registration databases not being up to date and other potential integrity concerns.
This spring, the federal government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES Act) aimed at making local and state governments more able to conduct core functions, like elections. Harris County was granted $17 million of these funds to help administer this year’s presidential elections.
A full $10 million of those funds will be spent recruiting poll workers. But much more has been earmarked for wildly expanding mail-in voting, without time or adequate security measures.
These dollars instead could have been used to increase planning staff or invest in technology to help manage large-scale scheduling of volunteers, increasing the amount of available poll workers.
Harris County also expanded absentee ballot drop off locations from 1 to 11, violating Texas state law and election precedent and likely at a significant cost. Critics of this move have said that more ballot drop off locations increase the likelihood ballots are intercepted, lost, or fraudulently dropped off. Further, they argue that additional drop-off locations are redundant, if people are able to drive to a drop off location, then they would be able to vote in person. And, more so, there are mail boxes, and drop locations by the hundreds in Harris all across the county. As former Harris County election judge Ed Emmet said “The voter can drop off the ballot in any mail box, including the one at their house” or as many places, near their residence.
On Oct. 1, Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott issued an executive order to restrict absentee ballot drop off locations to one—enforcing Texas state law. As Texas state Sen. Paul Bettencourt argued, having one drop off location does not suppress voters as the same system was used in 2016 and 2018 and Democrats Hillary Clinton and County Judge Lina Hildalgo carried Harris County in 2018.
The total amount of funds being spent on this presidential election will likely exceed $29 million. While some increase in spending may be justified to provide safe polling locations, as Harris County’s Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle pointed out, the county only spent $3.2 million in 2012 and $4.1 million in 2016.
After hearing the need for early voting poll workers, I reached out to the Harris County clerk’s office to sign up to work a few days at the polls. A young professional woman I worked with last November did the same. The county responded that they were unable to accommodate our scheduling requests due to the number of polling locations. Consequently, the county’s pool of volunteers is that much smaller, as it excludes those of us who can’t take three weeks of vacation to serve during early voting. So in addition rushing to mail ballots, using funds better served for in person voting and fighting with the state, there are bad policy decisions at work on staffing.
Instead of improving established in-person voting processes and despite Harris County’s COVID-19-related $200 million budget deficit, the county has committed an additional $12 million of non-CARES act funds to expand mail-in voting. This method of voting has known issues and based on Harris County’s lack of experience handling a massive inflow of mail-in ballots, expanding mail-in voting may cause more, not fewer problems for the county. Even Democrats are starting to encourage voters to vote in person. Importantly, most voters in Harris County do not even qualify to vote by mail.
In part due to the aforementioned risks, Texas AG Ken Paxton sued Harris County to prevent the county from sending mail in ballot applications to all registered voters in Harris County. On. 7, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state, barring Harris County from sending out unsolicited applications.
Americans have continued to hold elections through pandemics and wars and we will continue to do so despite our current circumstances. Officials across Texas and the US ought to efficiently and effectively administer elections so as to minimize the risk of fraud in the voting process. Only then will Americans continue to have faith that their vote does indeed matter.