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Analysis: Abilene experts show debate on mail-in ballots a multilayered issue



ABILENE, TX – Voting by mail in November’s general election took a hard turn Wednesday when the Texas Supreme Court blocked a decision that would have allowed mail-in balloting based on voters’ concern for their health.

The court agreed with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that risk of contracting the virus alone does not meet the state’s qualifications for voting by mail, stating a “a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a ‘disability’ as defined by the Election Code.”

Taylor County Elections Administrator Freda Ragan told Taylor County commissioners Tuesday that COVID-19 safety measures will be in place for the July 14 joint primary election runoff.

Those measure include social distancing, extra workers to clean and sanitize polling places, protective equipment for poll workers and gloves and disposable ballot pens available for those voting.

But some with an eye toward the November election still hope mail-in voting becomes an option for a wider array, or all, Americans.

Local party chairs differ on the issue, while a pair of Abilene political science professors have their own perspectives on what such a measure might mean, personally and politically.

What’s in place and at stake

In a statement to the Reporter-News, Winston Ohlhausen, chair of Taylor County’s Republican Party, said simply that there are already provisions for mail-in ballots for those eligible.

“You must meet some requirements to vote by mail that the (Texas) legislature has set,” he said in a text message.

Currently, to be eligible to vote early by mail in Texas, you must be:

Elizabeth Smyser, Democratic Party chair, in an email called the COVID-19 pandemic a “time of unprecedented health crisis,” saying it is imperative that Texas and all U.S. voters are able to participate in our elections safely and fairly.”

“Having just honored our fallen service members this last Memorial Day, it seems only fitting that in light of their sacrifice, we should work even harder to protect the bedrock principles of our democracy,” she said.

Smyser said there is in her opinion no evidence that mail-in voting favors one party over another or that it enables large-scale fraud.

“Expanding mail-in voting will allow us to participate in our time-honored traditions without exposing the public to any unnecessary harm or danger,” she said.

Smyser said she worried that Taylor County, which had been “fortunate” to not experience the number of hospitalizations or deaths of other, more populated areas, could see an escalation in cases brought about by in-person voting.