Fort Bend County elections administrators say mail-in voting applications are soaring due to concerns over COVID-19 as the pandemic continues to impact the area.
However, at least one of the candidates in the county’s headlining runoff next month is against the expansion of the practice, adding an intriguing layer to the July 14 election as early voting begins next week.
Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls, who is vying for a local seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, said he believes an increase in mail-in voting could facilitate voter fraud. He is facing fellow Republican Kathaleen Wall in the runoff from the March 3 primary, which was delayed by two months because of the pandemic. They are competing to see who faces Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni in November’s general election, which will decide who replaces Republican Pete Olson in District 22.
Whether all Texas citizens should be allowed to vote by mail in July, and in November for the general election, has been a hotly contested debate between Democrats and Republicans and also a matter being settled by the court system. As it stands, Texas voters can request mail ballots only if they are age 65 or older, have a disability, are incarcerated but eligible to vote or if they will be out of their home county on Election Day or during early voting.
A May ruling by the Texas Supreme Court said a lack of immunity to COVID-19 cannot be voters’ only justification for making a disability claim for a ballot by mail, but it can be a factor in voters’ individual determinations about whether in-person voting would cause a likelihood of injury to their health.
“I don’t think we should have expanded the ballot-by-mail in lieu of what we’re dealing with today,” Nehls said Monday.
Wall said she’s also opposed to voter fraud and does not think every registered voter should be sent a mail-in ballot even if they don’t request one.
Whatever the candidates’ stances on mail-in voting, it appears county residents have responded to the pandemic as evidenced by a spike in mail-in applications.
Fort Bend Elections Administrator John Oldham said the county has received nearly 13,000 total requests for mail-in ballots for the runoff and general elections as of Friday, and expects that number to exceed 14,000 by the time early voting begins June 29.
There also is an ongoing federal case about whether Texas’ existing laws for mail-in voting are unconstitutional on the grounds of age discrimination. U.S. District Judge Fred Biery ruled that all Texas voters qualify for ballots by mail during the pandemic, but that order was subsequently blocked by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Texas Democratic Party has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to lift the stay and allow Biery’s ruling to stand.
Oldham said the county will follow the federal ruling unless it changes. However, he added that the elections office has no authority to authenticate the veracity of any disability claim beyond the applicant’s age, essentially leaving it up to the voter.
As of Friday, the county had received 185 requests for mail-in ballots based on disability.
“When it comes to disability, the voter doesn’t explain what it is, nor do we verify it,” Oldham said. “If they claim disability, then they’re going to get a ballot.”
Other notable races on the July 14 ballot include Democratic runoffs for Fort Bend County Attorney and Fort Bend County Sheriff. Nehls’ twin brother Trever, a fellow Republican, is vying to replace his brother and will face the winner of the Democratic runoff between Eric Fagan and Geneane Hughes.
District 26 in the Texas House of Representatives is also up for grabs, with candidates in both parties heading to a runoff to replace Rick Miller after he dropped his reelection bid earlier this year. Jacey Jetton and Matt Morgan will vie for the Republican nomination, while Suleman Lalani and Sarah DeMerchant – the wife of Precinct 4 Commissioner Ken DeMerchant – are squaring off for the Democratic nod.
Among the county’s attempts to protect in-person voters and poll workers are providing workers with personal protective equipment and disinfecting products. Oldham said voting booths will be spaced at least 6 feet apart to ensure social distancing, and there will also be extra workers on hand to open doors for voters so they do not all touch the door handle.
Fort Bend plans to have 66 locations available on Election Day. Early voting will begin June 29, take a hiatus July 4 and continue through July 10.
“The main thing is to try to keep people from being jammed in line,” Oldham said. “We’re hoping people take advantage of this early start to the early voting period and come out next week.”
Until the U.S. Supreme Court settles the voting-by-mail issue in Texas, the county is leaving it in the voters’ hands as to what they believe the safest practice is for both the runoffs and general elections in November. It appears many voters have already signaled their preference.
“The most we’ve ever had in a non-presidential election year is a little over 16,000 (ballot-by-mail applications),” Oldham said. “We’re well on our way to blowing past that for November.”