When the coronavirus threat was newer and seemed more immediate, Texas postponed its May elections to pick winners in several party primary runoffs, fearing the health risks of exposing voters and poll workers.
With those statewide elections about to take place, the health risks voters face are now arguably greater than when the runoffs were initially called off.
The virus appears to be in much wider circulation than the original May 26 runoff date, with the state coming off a full week of record highs for COVID-19 hospitalizations and several consecutive days of record highs for daily reported infections.
But voters won't be required to wear masks at polling places. Gov. Greg Abbott, who earlier expressed concerns about exposing Texans "to the risk of death" at crowded polling sites, has forbidden local governments from requiring people to wear them in public.
And Texas Republicans, led by state Attorney General Ken Paxton, have successfully fought off legal efforts by Democrats and some voters to let more people vote by mail if they are fearful of being exposed to the virus at polling places.
With early voting starting June 29 and election day July 14, voters are largely left on their own to balance exercising their right to vote against the health risks that come with going to the polls in a pandemic. Some fear endangering themselves, while others fear bringing the virus back into homes they share with immunocompromised loved ones. The runoffs are relatively small elections with low turnout expected — the marquee race is the Democratic showdown to see who will challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in November — but they'll prove an instructive test run for what Texas might face come November's high octane general election.
“I feel like by voting I'm risking my life. By not voting, I don’t know that I’m risking the state of the country in a primary,” said Monica Daucourt, a Dallas teacher. “How important is the primary is what I'm weighing.”
With a classroom full of high schoolers, Daucourt counts on falling ill every year. Typically, it's an annual bout of bronchitis, though pneumonia was the malady last November.
Knowing she's prone to respiratory illness, Daucourt has been practicing social distancing and limiting her outings since the Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School where she teaches went remote. Up until last week, she was planning to momentarily lower her shield and venture out to cast her ballot. But fear crept in as she's seen record high numbers for daily new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations rolling in. Now, she’s trying to figure out if her history of respiratory illnesses might count as a disability under Texas law and make her eligible to vote by mail.
“I don’t know what kind of story I could build around myself to qualify,” said Daucourt, who is in her 50s.
Across the state, election administrators have been trying to rework the mechanics of in-person voting to see how safe they can make it. Plastic barriers will go up at check-in stations and poll workers will be wearing an assortment of protective equipment like masks, shields and finger covers. A bounty of hand sanitizer will be at the ready. In some counties, voters will receive styluses or craft sticks to mark up their ballots to avoid contact with voting equipment.
The Texas Secretary of State has offered voters a list of suggestions for keeping safe, like screening themselves for symptoms and bringing their own hand sanitizer to the polls.
Wearing masks is also something voters might want to consider, the state's chief election officer suggests.
Selena Garza, a 35-year-old Houston voter with a pre-existing health condition, figures her safest route is to have a plan.
Looking to avoid a crowd, Garza is scouting out a polling place that typically sees low foot traffic. Like other voters, she’s prepared to make multiple trips to the polls if she’s met with a long line of voters who aren’t wearing masks — but she knows that’s not an option available to all.
“I trust that the voting locations will take the best precautions,” Garza said. “My concern is you're in a shared space at that point and not everybody is on the same page when it comes to the safety protocols so what do you do at that point?”
Texas has reached its runoff elections after fighting in court to keep its strict voting by mail rules in place during the pandemic for voters under the age 65.
Texas is among a minority of states that require voters to present an “excuse” to obtain a mail-in ballot. In some of those states, Democratic and Republican officials have either moved to expand mail-in voting due to the pandemic or allowed voters to use the coronavirus as a reason to vote by mail during the upcoming elections. But Texas’ Republican leaders have been unwilling to budge.
The option remains for people with disabilities or conditions that make a trip to the polls risky to their health. But the legal definition of a disability under state election law remains murky after several rounds of litigation. In fielding calls about voting by mail eligibility, local election officials have been quoting the Texas Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the issue: A lack of immunity to the virus alone is not enough to claim eligibility for a mail-in ballot based on a disability, but it is a factor that can be considered as part of a voter’s medical situation.
And they have assured voters looking to apply for a mail in ballot “in good faith” that counties can’t question or investigate their reasoning for requesting a ballot based on a disability or medical condition. When voters cite a disability to request a mail-in ballot, they simply check a box on the application form. They aren’t required to say what the disability is. If their application is properly filled out, local officials are supposed to send them a ballot.
But the litigation over an expansion — and lack of clarity from the state — has confused some high-risk voters, including some who may actually be eligible to vote by mail but are instead considering risking exposure to the virus.
“The message has been muddled,” said Sylvia Scott, a 63-year-old at-home caregiver in Dallas.
A diabetic with heart issues, she has been self isolating since giving up the rotation of older residents she cared for. Despite her medical conditions, Scott isn’t sure if she’s eligible to vote by mail or even how to apply, and asked for guidance while speaking to a reporter.
But with her family’s legacy, there’s no room to let an election go by without participating. Scott, who is black, still has records of the poll taxes her grandmother was forced to pay to vote. Though contracting the virus could come with deadly consequences for her, she invokes the price paid — often with their own lives — by those who worked to ensure people who look like her could vote.
“I’m probably going to end up standing in a line exposing myself to exercise my right to vote, which I really resent,” she said.
Texas’ narrow qualifications are also forcing households with immunocompromised family members — who are otherwise avoiding interacting with others — to risk carrying the virus back from potentially crowded polling places.
“We haven't had any outings. We do all of our groceries curbside. Very rarely have we gone into store and when we do protect ourselves with masks and wear gloves,” said Joyce LeBombard, the past president of the League of Women Voters’ Austin area chapter whose husband is immunocompromised.
Existing law doesn’t account for families like hers in a pandemic, LeBombard said. She and her husband are both under 65. His medical condition will allow him to cite a disability to request a mail-in ballot. LeBombard, meanwhile, isn’t eligible.
She’s unwilling to sit an election out so she’s looking into eligibility requirements for curbside voting in hopes of limiting her contact with others at the polling place, though she’s not sure she qualifies for that either. Her ability to cast a ballot could come down to driving by the polling place closest to her home until she feels comfortable with the crowd size.
“While I legally know I don’t qualify, it’s my right to go vote. It's not a privilege. It’s my right. It’s my duty,” LeBombard said. “I feel it’s really unfair the state is trying to force me to make that kind of decision of giving up voting so I don’t put my family at risk versus going and putting my family at risk.”