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In Texas, USPS Woes And State Deadlines Could Leave Voters Without Enough Time To Return Mail-In Ballots

In Texas’ major counties, almost 99% of mail-in ballots were counted during the July primary runoff election, a Tribune analysis shows. But election officials say postal service disarray and a record number of requests mean people should ask for their absentee ballots well before November’s Election Day.

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Mismatching timelines between state election law and the realities of the U.S. Postal Service may mislead voters into believing they have a larger window of time to vote by mail than actually exists.

In nine of the 10 Texas counties with the most registered voters, almost 99% of nearly 199,000 votes cast by mail-in ballot during the July election were counted, and most that weren’t were rejected by election officials because they arrived too late, according to an analysis by The Texas Tribune.

As the state braces for a significant increase in mail-in voting this November — and Republicans nationwide foment unsubstantiated concerns about widespread fraud — the low rejection rate during the Texas primary runoffs offers reassurance to those pushing absentee voting as safe and reliable during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the small number of voters who missed the cutoff to submit mail-in ballots on time also highlighted longstanding disconnects between state election law and the realities of the U.S. Postal Service that may mislead voters into believing they have a larger window of time to vote by mail than actually exists.

Data gathered by the Tribune from nine major counties — Harris, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, Collin, Denton, El Paso, Fort Bend and Hidalgo — showed that 2,598 of 198,906 votes cast by mail-in ballot went uncounted. (Dallas County did not provide data.) Some were derailed by mistakes, like returning ballots without a signature. But Harris County alone accounted for 2,034 ballots that weren’t counted based on tardiness. Overall, at least 2,114 ballots went uncounted because they arrived too late.

For most people voting absentee, Texas counties must receive completed ballots by Election Day. If they're postmarked by 7 p.m. that day, they'll be counted if they come in the next day by 5 p.m. The U.S. Postal Service recommends that Texans ask for mail-in ballots no later than 15 days out from that due date. But state law allows voters to request the ballots up until a week and a half before Election Day, so some may not receive their ballots until it's too late to mail them back in time.

The misalignment between the state's deadlines and USPS processes is hardly novel, but the ill-matched timelines will be newly tested this general election as more Texans are expected to try to vote by mail to avoid the health risks of voting in person. At the same time, a troubled U.S. Postal Service is facing cost-cutting measures and ensuing mail delivery delays.

Although they represent a small sample in a low-turnout election, the mailing woes that kept voters from being heard in the July runoffs are spurring local election officials and voting rights advocates to work to minimize similar problems come November.

"What we have been telling voters is that [voting by mail] is the safest and most secure way to vote, period, in a global pandemic," said Ali Lozano, voting rights outreach coordinator with the Texas Civil Rights Project. But some local officials "are fully aware that they have to do something because there is just no possible way they can maintain the same infrastructure and handle the inevitable influx of ballots they're going to get."

During the runoffs, the state's deadline for requesting mail-in ballots — 11 days out from Election Day — left a troop of Harris County election workers, including County Clerk Chris Hollins, working furiously on the Sunday of July Fourth weekend to send ballots to the last of the voters whose applications had come in.

The county had been told by the U.S. Postal Service that Texans hoping to have their votes counted should send back their completed ballots at least one week before the state's deadline for accepting mail-in votes. On that timeline, the Harris County voters whose applications for ballots were being processed that Sunday would possibly end up receiving their ballots on the same day they were already supposed to be on their way back to the county. And that was under the best-case scenario.

"We were well ahead of the cutoff legally, but in a COVID scenario, meeting the legal deadline is not helpful to voters," Hollins said. "It leaves them very much in a pinch."

Texans seeking to vote absentee must navigate the state's strict rules, the beleaguered postal system and, in November, a lightly used voting system that could be strained by a growing number of mail-in voters.

Texas is among the states that have not relaxed eligibility rules during the pandemic, fending off legal challenges by the state Democratic party and voting rights groups to allow all voters to apply for mail-in ballots during the pandemic. All voters 65 and older qualify for a ballot to fill out at home. Voters who are younger qualify if they will be out of the county during the election period, if they cite a disability or illness, or if they're confined in jail but still eligible to vote.

Those voters must deliver their applications for an absentee ballot either in person at their local elections offices before the start of early voting or by mail. (Applications can be submitted by fax or email, but the county must receive a hard copy within four business days.) Mailed applications can be received through the 11th day before Election Day — four days after the 15 days USPS says voters should consider as a cutoff.

To help navigate that mismatch, Harris County's to-do list for November includes purchasing more mail-sorting equipment and hiring hundreds of temporary workers who will be solely focused on processing voting-by-mail applications and ballots. Harris County posted voting-by-mail numbers in a typically small runoff election approaching general election figures, Hollins said, and the county will continue to encourage eligible voters to use the vote-by-mail option in the fall. With thousands of ballot styles to draw up for the general election, the complex endeavor requires ballot requests to be processed by hand.

The runoff election "was taxing on our system, so thinking about an election that’s going to be seven or eight times larger than that in the fall, our operation has to be seven or eight times larger," said Hollins.

But not all Texas counties can attain that sort of exponential growth. In the mostly Republican county of Aransas — population 24,763 — the elections department is typically a two-person office. During the March primary, it took Election Administrator Michele Carew and her deputy eight days to get through mail-in ballot requests from Republican voters while still preparing for in-person voting.

Aided by the election funding her county received through the federal coronavirus relief package, Carew hired an election worker solely dedicated to mail-in ballots. But Aransas is facing a continuous stream of applications that will need to be fulfilled while the county prepares to manage six extra days of early voting that Gov. Greg Abbott ordered for the fall.

"Every day, we get up to a dozen requests," Carew said. "Before, it used to be far and few between."

Neither Abbott's office nor the Texas secretary of state's office responded to questions on what guidance the state is providing to local election officials on handling the dueling deadlines.

To bypass mailing issues, some other states rely on or are expanding the use of standalone ballot drop boxes that allow voters to hand-deliver their absentee ballots, but Texas law doesn't allow for them. To return their ballots, voters can either rely on the postal service or drop them off in person at their county elections offices.

Harris County used the runoffs to pioneer expanded ballot drop-off sites, opening up 11 of the county clerk's branch or annex locations for voters seeking to hand-deliver their ballots, and will be doing so again for the general.

But that option is seemingly unavailable in the large number of Texas counties where elections are overseen by an appointed administrator and not a county clerk with branch office locations. It's why Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator, is instead focusing on developing a campaign to "flatten the ballot-request curve" to convince voters to jump ahead of the state's deadlines and apply for mail-in ballots earlier in the calendar.

With work ongoing to finalize the county ballot, Callanen, like other election administrators, says she is aiming to get mail-in ballots into voters' hands at least 30 to 36 days out from Election Day.

"That is usually a race when we have these large elections because so many are involved, and right now with COVID, I'm literally hoping the right people will be working when we send the ballot proofs," Callanen said.

But voting rights advocates are calling for more adjustments to the state's voting practices during the pandemic, particularly increased options for dropping off ballots. Abbott has used executive power to delay the primary elections and extend early voting. Texas voters will also be able to drop off their completed ballots at county election offices.

Abbott's office, which indicated the governor will be voting in person in the general election, did not respond to questions on whether he would consider using executive power to enable Texas counties to set up drop boxes or additional drop-off sites.

"Gov. Abbott has used emergency powers before," said Lozano, with the Texas Civil Rights Project. "And I think this is an emergency."

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.