In-Depth

Survey: Racial, Political Divide In Harris County On Mail-In Vote Expansion Amid COVID-19

A new survey from Rice University finds nearly 70 percent of respondents would prefer to vote by mail if given the choice, but partisan divisions are sharp

Voters wait in line to vote at the University of Houston on Super Tuesday.

Tamara Sell moved to Montrose from Seattle. COVID-19 or not, she’s ready to vote, in person if she has to.

“I will likely risk my health and go vote because it’s really important to me – with a mask, social distancing as much as I can, with all the measures in place,” she said. 

Sell works as a deputy voter registrar. “I communicate with a lot of other people, I don’t necessarily feel comfortable encouraging them to vote and risking their life, especially if they have health conditions,” Sell said.

If a deputy registrar is that worried, then what about the average voter?

Rice University recently surveyed Harris County voters. And nearly 70 percent of respondents preferred voting by mail if that’s an option.

“We found that a large number of voters – particularly Democrats, women, and persons over 65 – were reluctant to vote in person at a polling location on or before Election Day,” said Rice political scientist Bob Stein.

But by Attorney General Ken Paxton’s interpretation, Texas law only permits only one of those groups, those over 65, eligible to ask for a mail-in ballot.

“I’m over 65, so if I want to vote by mail, I can,” said Tom Berg, an attorney and an army veteran who lives near Memorial Park. “But traditionally I’ve gotten in line with everybody else and done that. And it gives me pause that we may have to socially distance or be exposed to the coronavirus, in order to exercise the franchise.”

Washington election workers collect ballots from a drop box. Currently, Texas only supports in-person voting for most Texans.

It’s been a rollercoaster week in Texas when it comes to the right to vote by mail in Texas. Challenges have gone back and forth in state and federal courts.

Under Texas state law, voters qualify for mail-in ballots if they are 65 years or older, have a disability or illness, will be out of the county, or are in jail.

On Wednesday, the Texas Supreme Court heard oral argument about whether expanding mail-in balloting during the COVID-19 pandemic is legal, as many counties in the state argue that it is. Some local election officials have argued that a lack of immunity to COVID-19 constitutes a physical condition as defined in the Texas statutes, which would prevent people from voting without causing likely injury to health.

A day earlier, a federal court granted a preliminary injunction that would allow all registered voters to apply to vote by mail, finding that the state’s existing rules violate the Equal Protection Clause. That decision has since been blocked by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

The possibility of getting sick at the polls is a big worry for Ashley Werner of Greenway Plaza, 29, who is immunocompromised.

“I am avoiding grocery stores,” Werner said. “I’m avoiding going anywhere that’s not necessary. And I’ve been working from home since March 17, so I did think about it for a little bit, but I do think it was kind of like the no-brainer. It was like, ‘OK, it’s time to apply for voting by mail since I’m considered a higher risk population.’”

But there are also voters like Ryan Russell of the Heights, who is in his mid-30s and in decent health. Yet he’s anxious about having to wait on long lines in close proximity to other people in order to cast his ballot.

“You know, I work over by the AIG Building, and there’s an early voting center [nearby],” Russell said. “I would probably take time out of my day to sit in the parking lot and watch how many, you know– were there a lot of cars, are there a lot of people, you know, things like that. But I’d have to really go out of my way to make an effort to figure out when the place is going to be the least crowded and go in and do it like that.”

Rice’s Bob Stein also found African Americans are far more nervous about voting in person, with just 17.7% of those surveyed saying they would do so even if social distancing protocols were in place. More than 41% of voters said they would vote in person. Among those voters, Stein said, the majority were Democrats, many were women, and as a group, were slightly more likely to be over 65.

The coronavirus has disproportionately impacted African Americans in Houston and around the country. Kathleen Leonard is African American and over 65. She lives in Southwest Houston and used to direct a nonprofit.

“I am going to vote,” Leonard said. “Bottom line, I am going to vote. So, if I absolutely had to go to the poll, I would go to the poll. But I sure hope that is not the situation, because I have a 102-year-old mother who will vote absentee ballot. And I’m with her every other day, and I don’t want to get something that I then bring back to her. That would be terrifying.”

Vanessa Wade is also African American, but in her early 30s, and lives in the Heights. She’s hoping the courts will allow for expanded access to the absentee ballot if necessary.

“I know its easier to say that in May because we’re six months away from November,” Wade said, “but I would like to go in person. But if that’s something that’s just absolutely not possible, or if it doesn’t make sense, then I would definitely do it by mail. Either way, I’m planning on voting.”

But the Rice survey shows Republicans are far less likely to want to vote by mail, let alone to support others doing so for fear of catching COVID-19. One reason: potential voter fraud.

Clay Mills of Humble has been a Republican poll judge for the past 10 years.

“In my opinion, based on all those years of experience, by far the easiest way to commit fraud is vote by mail,” Mills said. “I think we should always be concerned about health and do the best we can, but we also can’t destroy the purity of the vote based on health reasons.”

Such fraud is extremely rare, according to studies conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. 

Michael Palmquist is also a Republican poll judge and army veteran from Spring. As for concerns about voting in person during the pandemic? “None whatsoever.”

“I mean, if I can go to the grocery store, and I can go to Sam’s, and I can go to Walmart, there’s no reason I can’t stand in line and vote,” Palmquist said.

And Joanne Thomas, an Alabama native and a teacher from West Houston, is battling cancer. But she’s still determined to vote in person, not by mail.

“I will wear my gloves, I will wear my mask, and I will go in and vote,” Thomas said. “I have family members who have died for the right for me to vote.” 

Like Mills, Thomas is concerned about potential vote fraud.

“I have heard the term ballot harvesting, and I totally disagree with it because you can’t prove who you are,” Thomas said, “I am a firm believer that you should carry some form of ID to have the privilege to vote in the United States of America. You should be an American citizen and pay taxes. If you don’t, you don’t have the right to have the say on who will govern us.”

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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