"Hey, Texplainer: Why can’t all Texans vote by mail?" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Today’s Texplainer is inspired by a question from Texas Tribune reader Jim Denton.
Hey, Texplainer: Why can’t all Texans vote by mail? Wouldn’t it save taxpayer money?
The short answer is because it’s not legal.
However, 22 states allow some elections to be conducted entirely by mail, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. As of January 2017, three states — Oregon, Washington and Colorado — hold all elections entirely by mail.
We’ve compiled an overview of reasons why lawmakers haven’t passed legislation to let everyone vote by mail, how the issue might be addressed in the upcoming special session and what expanding mail-in voting could mean for Texans.
Who is currently eligible to vote by mail in Texas?
As of now, Texans are only eligible to vote early by mail if they fit any of the following criteria:
- 65 years or older
- out of the county on election day or during the early voting period
- confined in jail, but otherwise eligible (i.e., not convicted of a felony)
According to the secretary of state’s office, eligible Texans who want to vote by mail have two options: They can mail in their ballots (it must be postmarked by Election Day and received by 5 p.m. the day after the election) or they can give their ballot directly to an early voting clerk.
Texans who choose the latter option have to show one of the seven accepted forms of voter ID. Voters who do not have any of these documents and cannot “reasonably obtain” them can still cast votes if they swear that they have a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining appropriate identification.
“The Texas Election Code allows for Texans who meet certain criteria to vote early by mail,” secretary of state spokesman Sam Taylor said. “The Secretary of State’s office follows the direction of the Legislature and works to ensure that eligible Texans understand the requirements for casting a ballot by mail.”
Are there any exceptions to this?
Yes. For example, a Texan serving in the military overseas can vote by mail by filling out a federal postcard application.
Texans eligible to vote by mail are also allowed to cast late ballots if they’re disabled or in the case of a death in their immediate family, according to the state’s election code.
Will mail-in voting be brought up during the special session?
Expanding mail-in voting won't. But cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud is one of the 20 items on Gov. Greg Abbott’s ambitious agenda for the July-August special session. The bill will be authored by state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, and state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, Abbott’s office announced in late June.
Abbott said in a news release that he “prosecuted countless cases of mail-in ballot fraud as attorney general” and that “the problem continues to exist today.”
“The right to vote is sacred in this country, and ensuring the integrity of the ballot box is one of the most fundamental functions of government,” Abbott said. “I look forward to working with [Goldman and Hancock] and members of both chambers to ensure mail-in ballot fraud legislation reaches my desk.”
The governor also recently signed a measure to crack down on voter fraud in nursing homes.
Under the new legislation, when residential care facilities request five or more absentee ballots, counties will be required to send election judges — representing each political party — to deliver the ballots during early voting and to oversee voting at those homes, providing assistance if necessary.
Have there been problems with mail-in voting fraud in the past?
Broadly, election fraud is rare. However, fraud involving mail-in ballots is the most common kind, experts say.
The state's 2011 voter ID legislation was part of a trend in Republican-led statehouses across the country where proponents hoped to reduce voter fraud. But the law only applied to ballots cast in person — where experts have found scant evidence of trouble.
“The bill did nothing to address mail-in balloting, which is much more vulnerable to fraud,” Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi wrote in an April ruling that also said the Legislature intentionally discriminated against minorities in passing the voter ID law.
Lawmakers knew in 2011 that in-person voter fraud was far less prevalent than mail-in fraud.
“What the committee found was that most election fraud occurs through the mail-in ballot system, through voter registration, and through politiqueras or vote brokers which are predominantly found in South Texas,” the House Committee on Elections wrote in a 2008 interim report. Politiqueras are paid to harvest votes by bringing elderly voters to polling places and are often accused of manipulating the mail-in ballot system.
The city of Dallas is currently investigating allegations of voter fraud in two previous elections. Officials say residents in West Dallas received mail-in ballots they didn’t request. On Wednesday, Attorney General Ken Paxton announced his office will be joining the Dallas County District Attorney’s investigation of the claims, and Abbott tweeted Wednesday that “Texas is cracking down on cheating at the ballot box.”
In a statement, Hancock said North Texas has a “real problem” with voter fraud, which is why he will be one of the sponsors of Abbott’s effort during the special session.
Would switching to a vote-by-mail system save taxpayers money?
It’s unclear how much switching to an all vote-by-mail system would save counties. Even if everyone submitted their ballots by mail, polling places would still need to pay to use scanning machines to verify and count each ballot.
The main savings, however, would come from the money counties — and taxpayers — now spend paying poll workers. According to the secretary of state’s office, it’s hard to calculate how much the state's 254 counties spend to pay those workers.
The bottom line: Though voting issues may come up during the special session, allowing all Texans vote by mail is not likely to be one of them. If Texas were to switch to holding elections entirely by mail, it’s unclear how much that would save each county, but the main savings would come from not having to pay poll workers.