With Texas’ runoff elections set to happen in the middle of a pandemic this summer, many voters are asking: Do I have to go to the polls to cast a ballot?
The short answer is that it’s still up in the air for many. An ongoing legal fight is being waged on multiple fronts over whether the novel coronavirus means more people should be eligible to vote by mail in Texas this year.
In the federal courts, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery granted a preliminary injunction that said anyone in Texas who wants to vote by mail to avoid transmission of the virus could qualify for a mail-in ballot. However, less than a day later, a panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily stopped his ruling from taking effect.
A separate but similar case is pending at the Texas Supreme Court, meaning that it’s unclear whether Texas will expand who is eligible to vote by mail during the pandemic, as other states have.
As of Wednesday, the state’s traditional rules remained in place. But the courts could still force the state to expand. And the Texans who normally qualify to vote by mail can still do so in July regardless of any decisions by the courts. Here’s a look at how voting by mail works in Texas and the ongoing legal fight.
How do I qualify to vote by mail in Texas?
According to Five Thirty Eight, 29 states allow any registered voter to request a ballot by mail, and five states conduct all elections via mail. In multiple states that do not regularly allow all voters to vote by mail, state officials have recently expanded voting by mail due to the pandemic or allowed voters to use the coronavirus as a reason to vote by mail during the upcoming elections. Texas isn’t one of them.
A registered voter can request a ballot to fill out at home and then mail in if they meet a narrow set of qualifications. Voters can apply if they are 65 years or older, have a disability or an illness, or are confined in jail, according to the Texas secretary of state's office. Voters who will not be in the county where they registered on the election day and during the entire early voting period can also request a ballot by mail.
What’s the status of the state’s rules for mail-in voting?
In multiple lawsuits, individual voters, state Democrats and civic organizations are asking the courts to clarify whether a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus is a valid reason for people to request absentee ballots under the Texas election code’s disability qualification. The code defines a disability as a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents a voter from appearing in person without the risk of “injuring the voter’s health.”
Texas Republican leaders, including Attorney General Ken Paxton, argue that the vote-by-mail disability qualifications apply to voters who already have a sickness or physical condition and not those who fear contracting a disease, “whether it be COVID-19 or the seasonal flu.”
Last month, state District Judge Tim Sulak issued a temporary order in favor of the Democrats and nonpartisan organizations, allowing voters who are susceptible to the virus to qualify for mail-in ballots by citing a disability. A state appeals court upheld the district judge’s order, but the Texas Supreme Court then put it on hold.
The state’s victory in federal court Wednesday could prove to be temporary. The 5th Circuit granted what’s known as an administrative stay, which only stops Biery’s ruling from taking effect while the court considers whether it will issue an injunction nullifying it during the entire appeals process.
Some believe the fight could make its way all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. For now, the existing qualifications for absentee voting remain in place.
How can I submit an application to vote by mail?
To apply for a mail-in ballot, voters must mail a completed application for ballot by mail to the early voting clerk in the county where they are registered. Voters can print out their own applications, contact their local elections office to receive one or request one from the secretary of state’s office. In order for someone to vote absentee in the July runoffs, counties must receive the applications by July 2. Contact information for early voting clerks in every county can be found here.
How do I turn in my ballot?
For most people voting absentee, counties must receive completed ballots that are postmarked by 7 p.m. on election day. Ballots are also valid if they’re received by 5 p.m the day after the election as long as they were postmarked by 7 p.m. on election day. Under Texas’ election code, an absentee ballot can be delivered to the county clerk’s office by mail or dropped off in person on the day of the election with a valid form of ID.
Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.