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TEXAS VIEW: Is Texas ready for high voter turnout this fall? - Odessa American: Texas Opinion

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TEXAS VIEW: Is Texas ready for high voter turnout this fall?

THE POINT: As we head into the November general election, the focus needs to remain on keeping voters and election workers safe.

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Posted: Friday, July 31, 2020 3:00 am

An unprecedented high turnout for the recent primary runoff elections could signal a record number of Bexar County voters casting ballots in November.

While increased voter participation is always the goal, large crowds at the polls raise serious public health concerns during this pandemic. Voters would do well to follow Bexar County Election Administrator Jacque Callanen’s advice urging those older than 65 to cast ballots by mail and the rest to vote early to minimize the long lines come Election Day.

Bexar County had a 10 percent voter turnout compared with turnouts of 2.6 percent to 5.3 percent in similar elections in the past. It was a trend seen across the state. The unexpected increase in voters has many experts anticipating 60 to 65 percent of the county’s 1.1 million registered voters will show up in the fall. Turnout during a presidential election is usually around 50 percent. Again, higher turnout is welcome, but it poses challenges during a pandemic.

It is undetermined if the heightened voter interest in the runoff was due to the high political emotionalism that followed the killing of George Floyd while in police custody, an extended early voting period due to the pandemic or eagerness to venture out by voters who have otherwise mostly been confined to their homes.

Whatever the cause, that interest is unlikely to wane in the coming months with Texas poised as the biggest battleground state in the country.

Allowing all Texas registered voters the option of voting by mail would significantly reduce the COVID-19-related health concerns, but that is not going to happen — the courts have assured us of that. In May, the Texas Supreme Court determined that the lack of immunity was not a “disability” for purposes of voting by mail. Last month, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled it was up to the state to determine how to administer voting during a pandemic.

In Texas absentee voting is only allowed for voters who are out of state, have a disability or are older than 65, and there is no support among the state leadership to expand on that. This is a mistake. Numerous studies have shown voting by mail increases turnout for both parties and that fraud is exceedingly rare.

In Bexar County, a significant number of voters are eligible to cast mail ballots due to their age, but only a small percentage do so. Election office records show that 1 in 5 registered voters in Bexar County is 65 or older. That’s 234,802 potential voters who could participate in the election remotely, if they so choose.

During the March primaries, 23 percent of the 254,603 voters were older than 65 years. Most of them voted in person. That needs to change. We urge anyone eligible to cast a ballot by mail to do so for their safety and that of election staff. Requests for mail ballots for the November election can be submitted now. The form can be downloaded at bexar.org/1573/Early-Voting-Absentee-Ballots.

In addition to crowds and long lines, voters heading to the polls in November can also expect a long ballot. Municipal and school elections canceled in May due to the pandemic will appear on the general election ballot. This translates to more time in the voting booth.

Gov. Greg Abbott extended the early voting period during the runoff election to alleviate congestion at the polls, and he has indicated he will do the same for the general election. We support this practice, and the sooner the voting schedule is set, the more time administrators will have to plan.

A large number of election workers are older and considered at high risk should they get the coronavirus. During the last election, about 50 election workers decided not to work because of COVID-19 concerns, prompting the county to reduce the number of voting centers from 226 to 214. We can’t blame the election workers.

Voters cannot be required to wear masks when casting ballots, and there were a few instances during the runoffs when voters opted not to wear one. That’s simply unconscionable.

As we head into the November general election and political campaigns kick into high gear, the focus needs to remain on keeping voters and election front-line workers safe and healthy through the election cycle.

If we can do all that and achieve a 65 percent voter turnout, it would be a healthy showing for democracy.

Odessa, TX

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