Texas’ primary runoff election yesterday served as a test run for the upcoming November 3rd elections – and it is a test that state leadership has largely failed. As Texas prepares for the general election, CDF-Texas continues to call for stronger measures to protect our public health and our democracy.
Initially postponed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, yesterday’s election occurred while Texas is reporting 1 in 7 coronavirus cases nationwide and a week after the Texas Department of State Health Services stated that “there has never been a higher risk of getting COVID-19 in Texas.” Despite these risks and the additional time to prepare, state leaders have refused to adopt commonsense recommendations supported by elections and public health experts and called for by advocates including CDF-Texas. They instead have spent the past weeks fighting in court to limit options for safe voting and abdicating their responsibility to protect public health and the right to vote. As we explored in our 2019 Youth Vote report, these policies disproportionately affect young Texans – especially young Texans of color, who face additional threats from COVID-19, economic instability, and systemic racism.
Texas policies already make it difficult for many voters to register and cast their vote. Those difficulties have been exacerbated by COVID-19 without adequate action by state leadership. Governor Abbott did extend the early voting period and has committed to do the same in the fall. But state leaders made their priorities clear when Attorney General Ken Paxton broke with Republican and Democratic leaders across the country to aggressively fight against vote-by-mail. Texas’ vote-by-mail laws are already among the most restrictive in the country, and leave behind young voters while privileging older voters who are overwhelmingly white. The confusion and lack of state support led to reports of Texans applying to vote-by-mail and never receiving their ballot or having their ballots returned unopened. It also led to a lawsuit filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project on behalf of the 68,000 Texans who tested positive for COVID-19 after the deadline to apply to vote by mail.
Even as the state refused to support vote-by-mail, leaders also left counties without guidance or authority to keep voters safe. When Governor Abbott finally mandated a statewide facemask requirement, he prohibited local officials from enforcing the mandate in polling places. CDF-Texas agrees with the governor that “constitutional rights are not voided simply because of a pandemic” – but no other state with statewide mask orders has exempted polling places from this fundamental public health measure. Instead, the state can protect all voters and poll workers in the fall by ensuring that polling places have extra masks for voters or requiring voters without masks to use curbside voting.
Without stronger state leadership, more counties risk tough decisions about how to run safe polling places. County officials in Bexar and Tarrant County – two of the largest counties in Texas – explicitly cited the governor’s order as one reason they were forced to close multiple planned polling places for Election Day, as poll workers quit due to fears of exposure to the virus. Fewer polling places means longer travel times for some voters and a potential of longer wait times – both deterrents for voters.
Despite insufficient protections and guidance, Texans nonetheless turned out to vote at potentially record-high numbers, demonstrating extraordinary civic commitment in the midst of a pandemic. But voting is a fundamental constitutional right, and Texans should not have to risk their lives in order to cast their vote. Elections in November do not have to be this way. We now have four months to prepare for the high turnout of the general election – time to adopt policies such as vote-by-mail recommended by elections and public health experts to ensure that Texas voters can protect their vote and their health. CDF-Texas stands with partners and advocates across the state to demand that Texas learn from this failed test run and begins preparing immediately for the November election.