No crisis should be wasted, and that is true of the coronavirus pandemic. Elected leaders in Texas should demonstrate a commitment to social distancing and make the Nov. 3 election a real exercise in 21st century participatory democracy.
It’s time for Texas to embrace online voter registration and universal voting by mail. More than 30 states already allow registered voters to vote by mail, and three states (Oregon, Washington, and Colorado) conduct elections exclusively by mail.
Voting by mail in Texas is restricted to people 65 and older; the disabled; people who will be outside the country on Election Day and the early voting period; and people in jail who are not convicted felons.
“COVID-19 is exposing the fault lines in the foundation of Texas’ democracy,” said Drew Galloway, executive director of Move Texas. “By requiring a wet signature for voter registration, Texas is disenfranchising our eligible voters every day they self-isolate. Our state leaders must modernize our voter registration system now to offer an online option to register to vote for November’s election.
“If we are to protect the right to vote, we must also expand access to vote by mail options immediately,” Galloway said. “Every voter should have the option to cast their ballot from the safety of their homes. We must begin planning for these changes now.”
Move Texas has launched an online petition drive calling on Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders to enact the changes.
Democrats favor universal voting by mail. Republicans here and in many other states have resisted such calls. Each party has much to gain or lose if election procedures are modified in response to the unprecedented measures necessary to contain the spread of the virus.
Seven months is a relatively short period of time to implement such change, but it can be done. The barriers are not technical. They are political. Abbott could use emergency powers to enact such change now as a public health measure and await passage of a bill enshrining the changes when legislators convene in 2021. There has been no talk of Abbott calling an emergency special session to deal with the pandemic.
Inviting more citizens to vote by mail would counter the damage partisan gerrymandering has done to states like Texas, which could see a return to two-party democracy and the election of state officeholders governing from the center. Mail-in ballots would encourage minorities otherwise fearful of intimidation at polling sites. It would thwart hackers and improve public confidence in the count.
The $2 trillion stimulus bill signed into law last week includes $400 million for expanding mail-in voting nationally. That is not enough. A report by the Brennan Center for Justice suggests $2 billion in funding would be needed to successfully implement such transformational change across all states.
The cost for Texas to enact its own reforms would be far less and could be drawn from the Rainy Day Fund. The money would be used to underwrite the cost of mass printing of mail-in ballots and envelopes, postage, the purchase of high-speed ballot scanners, and hiring additional election staff. A public education campaign would be essential.
Expanding early voting, now set for Oct. 20-31, would space out voters more responsibly and shorten the time people spend waiting in line. People could still go to the polls on Nov. 3.
This is not the time to pretend the Nov. 3 election can go on as originally planned. The state’s primary runoffs have been postponed from May to July 14, even as campaigns have ground to halt. San Antonio’s planned city election in May that included a ballot measure asking voters to extend the one-eighth cent sales tax to fund the Pre-K 4 SA program is expected to be postponed until November.
Nationally, even the presidential campaign has come to a halt. Yes, there are online activities, cable news pundits sounding off, and campaign mailers (I received five pieces from the Trump campaign in a single day this week), but multiple Democratic primaries have been canceled or postponed. The state of the Biden-Bernie standoff is in limbo. Who wants to watch another debate in the current environment? June 2 could be a second Super Tuesday of sorts with as many as 12 states staging primaries, although the continuing spread of COVID-19 could upend those plans.
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The idea of the two political parties holding national conventions attended by tens of thousands of delegates, elected officials, party leaders, the media, and others this summer seems reckless at this date. The mayors of host cities Milwaukee and Charlotte face tough decisions. However much each of us wishes for it, business as usual is not yet on the calendar.
The American Civil Liberties Union maintains a website listing procedures and deadlines for voting by mail in all 50 states, so students, active military, and others living here who remain registered to vote in their hometowns can easily access absentee ballots.
Let your elected representatives hear from you on this issue. Election reform will not come from the top down. Politics will trump common sense. Any real change will have to be a movement driven by civic engagement that politicians cannot ignore.