Process of Getting Mail-In Ballots Poised to Simplify

Texas is streamlining the process by which the disabled and elderly receive annual mail-in ballots. This is part of our 31 Days, 31 Ways series.

Throughout August, The Texas Tribune will feature 31 ways Texans' lives will change because of new laws that take effect Sept. 1. Check out our story calendar for more.

In Texas, disabled or elderly residents can currently receive mail-in ballots for all elections in a calendar year under a seemingly innocuous condition: The elections must be held in areas where the county clerk is the early voting clerk.

That requirement, however, has proved to have an unintended consequence: Some people eligible for annual mail-in ballots have not been receiving all of them because some elections are not held with the help of the county. For example, school boards sometimes hold elections on their own.

A bill set to go into effect Sept. 1 looks to change that. Among other things, House Bill 1927 by Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Angleton, aims to close that loophole and ensure that annual mail-in ballots are sent to every person who applied for them. 

"For them not to receive them is just unjust," Bonnen said. "You can't choose not to send the mail ballots." 

The bill might be the most consequential elections legislation signed by Gov. Greg Abbott from the standpoint of the average voter, said Glen Maxey, the legislative affairs director for the Texas Democratic Party. Several other elections measures were tacked on to HB 1927 on its way to Abbott's desk, including a measure that lets Texans electronically apply to vote by mail.

"With all those things together," Maxey said, "it will make mail balloting a lot easier."

The central part of HB 1927 builds on legislation passed during the 2013 session. House Bill 666 allowed Texans to apply for vote-by-mail applications on an annual basis, as opposed to during the run-up to every election. 

"It was a big hassle for people who had to use mail ballots," Maxey recalled, "and it was a heck of a hassle for the political parties getting seniors signed up, having to expend a lot of money every session." 

But even with HB 666 in effect, the system was imperfect. It only applied to elections in which the county clerk was the early voting clerk, excluding elections in which the administrators do not contract with the county. Under HB 1927, all election administrators would be held responsible for nonetheless ensuring disabled and elderly voters receive their annual mail-in ballots.

Bonnen called HB 1927 a no-brainer, and it drew no apparent opposition when it was heard by the House Elections Committee. The panel advanced the bill to the full House on a unanimous vote. 

Among the measures that were later added to HB 1927 was one that sets up a process by which counties can maintain the most up-to-date information on vote-by-mail applications. The provision addresses problems that arise when voters' identifying information changes over the course of a year, like when a person's name changes after a marriage.

In that case, the spouse's annual mail-in ballot would go "belly up, automatically," said Bill Sargent, chief deputy clerk for elections in Galveston County. "We changed that and said, 'Wait a minute. This is the same person. Why are we doing this?'" 

Bonnen does not expect many hiccups when the law takes effect. After all, he added, "it's such a commonsense piece of legislation."