Pat Covarrubias stuffs mail-in ballot envelopes at the Bexar County Elections Department. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Bexar County Elections Department officials dropped the first batch of mail-in ballots in the mail last Friday, and residents who applied for one should begin receiving them by the start of the early voting period on Oct. 13.

So far, voters have requested about 78,000 mail-in ballots in Bexar County for the November general election, breaking the previous record of 58,000, Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen told the San Antonio Report. Oct. 23 is the deadline to request a mail-in ballot.

Whether those voters eventually choose to mail in their ballots or vote in person amid the coronavirus pandemic remains to be seen, but Callanen said she is confident her department will be able to handle the expected increase in mailed-in ballots.

The most recent Bexar Facts/KSAT/San Antonio Report poll found that about 17 percent of registered voters said they plan to vote by mail, with a plurality identifying themselves as Democrats and over 65 years old. Most voters agree that the words “safe,” “secure,” and “easy” accurately describe voting by mail, according to the poll of registered Bexar County voters.

But more than 40 percent of poll respondents said voting by mail increases voter fraud and is “risky,” an opinion that is more common among Republicans. President Donald Trump has falsely stated several times that widespread mail-in voting systems are teeming with fraud, although they are used in states such as Colorado and Oregon.

This graphic shows voter perception of mail-in ballots.
This Bexar Facts graphic shows voter perception of mail-in ballots. Credit: Courtesy / Bexar Facts

Who qualifies to vote by mail?

In Texas, fear of contracting the coronavirus does not qualify voters for a mail-in ballot. The Texas Supreme Court ruled that a lack of immunity to the coronavirus is not in itself enough to qualify. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September that Texas can keep its eligibility rules for voting by mail.

Any voter 65 or older automatically qualifies for a mail-in ballot. Voters under 65 can qualify if they cite a disability or illness, will be out of Bexar County during early voting and on Election Day, or are confined in jail without being convicted of a crime, Callanen said.

“However, if you … have high blood pressure or if you’re diabetic, that in itself could qualify you for a disability,” she said. Such conditions are listed as underlying conditions that could lead to death if combined with coronavirus.

A disability, as defined by state law, is a “sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on Election Day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.”

The Bexar County Elections Department will send a mail-in ballot to anyone who claims to qualify and does not verify whether someone meets the requirements, Callanen said.

However, an individual’s mail-in ballot application is a public record. It’s unclear how or if candidates would challenge ballots mailed by able-bodied, younger voters. Attorney General Ken Paxton threatened to prosecute those who advise voters to mail in their ballots because of a fear of the disease.

The Bexar Facts poll shows that 13 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 49 plan on voting by mail. Only 34 percent of voters 65 and older said they would take advantage of mail-in ballots; most said they would vote in-person early or on Election Day.

Applications for a ballot by mail must be submitted to the Bexar County Elections Department no later than Oct. 23.

About 78,000 mail-in-ballots have been requested in Bexar County. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

How mailed-in ballots are handled

When a mail-in ballot is received by the Bexar County Elections Department, it is “literally locked up,” Callanen said.

State law allows counties with populations larger than 100,000 to start processing mailed ballots 12 days before Election Day, which is Oct. 22. To be counted, ballots must be postmarked before the polls close at 7 p.m. on Election Day, according to state law.

Bexar County will take full advantage of the time before that deadline, Callanen said. She estimates that roughly 50 paid volunteers – assigned by the local Democratic and Republican parties – will serve on the Early Voting Ballot Board. They’ll be working in shifts to remove ballots from envelopes, verify signatures, and carry ballots into the central tabulation room for computers to scan and count their votes.

The process is designed to guard against fraud or mishandling of ballots, Callanen said. Election clerks send the ballots to voters and the political party volunteers process completed ballots, Callanen noted. “The right hand never touches the left hand,” she said.

Two board members representing both Republicans and Democrats team up to go through stacks of mail that contain the voter’s signature sheet and a separate white “secrecy” envelope with the voter’s ballot sealed inside.

First, they look at the signature and compare it to the county’s signature on file.

“If they have [a signature] that comes through, and they’re like, ‘Hmm. Maybe, maybe not,’ they turn that back over to election judges [who] are the ballot board judges,” Callanen said. “[They] have access to the last six signatures of that voter.”

There are many reasons why a signature may change over time or from year to year, she said. “Because of the arthritis in my hands, [my signature] will look different in the morning than it does in the afternoon. That’s just a fact.”

During a presidential election, these judges would have to agree to disqualify a suspected fraudulent signature and, therefore, a ballot.

During the July 14 primary election, the judges rejected only 49 ballots out of over 30,000, she said. During primary elections, those judges preside only over the ballots for their respective parties.

After the signature is verified, the white secrecy envelope is opened by different board members at a separate table.

“They flatten [the ballots] in stacks, put them in containers,” Callanen said. “Then at that point, they turn those containers full of ballots over to us and we take them into the vault into the central tabulation room. … That’s where the big machines are.”

Skipping the post office

Mail-in ballots can be submitted in person at the Elections Department, 1103 S. Frio St., at any point (even before early voting begins) before 7 p.m. on Nov. 3.

Previously, the voting clerk’s office could accept in-person drop-offs of mail-in ballots only on Election Day, but Gov. Greg Abbott’s proclamation extending early voting by one week also included the provision that extended that drop-off period, too.

However, those submitting mail-in ballots in person have to show a photo ID and sign a roster just as if they were at a polling place, Callanen said. “A husband can’t bring in his wife’s ballot [without her],” she said.

If you requested a ballot and haven’t received it by Oct. 13, the start of in-person early voting, call the Elections Department at 210-335-8683, Callanen said. Voters can track their ballots online here.

Voters who requested a mail-in ballot can change their minds and vote at a polling station if they choose, she said. It helps to bring the mail-in ballot with you, but it’s not required.

“If they don’t have [the mail-in ballot], the election official has to call [the Elections Department] to make sure that the ballot has not been returned before they can permit them to vote,” she said.

She encouraged people who are voting by mail to do so as soon as they can to avoid a last-minute strain on the U.S. Postal Service and to make sure their ballots arrive on time.

Late mail-in ballots are accepted only if they are coming from enlisted military members overseas, she said.

“Yes, our results will change the day after,” she said. “Yes, our results are going to change six days out, because that’s when we get to count any late military [members’ ballots].”

Expanding voting access

Most Bexar County voters support a wide range of policy changes to make it easier to register and vote, the Bexar Facts/KSAT/San Antonio Report poll shows.

Seventy-four percent support automatic registration for Texans when they turn 18 and more than 60 percent of voters said they would support automatic registration when Texans get a drivers license, allowing people to register to vote online, and allowing any voter to vote by mail.

More than 50 percent said they would support allowing people to register to vote on Election Day and automatically mailing vote-by-mail applications to every voter.

This graphic shows broad support for policies that would make it easier to register and vote.
This Bexar Facts graphic shows broad support for policies that would make it easier to register and vote. Credit: Courtesy / Bexar Facts

The only potential policy change that did not receive majority support from respondents was automatically sending all voters a ballot to vote by mail. Forty-nine percent favored that option.

“There is a perception held by 55 percent of local voters that [voting by mail] is a radical change, which I think reflects some of the partisan divisions on this issue, but also the sense that it is so restricted in Texas,” said Bexar Facts pollster David Metz. “So expanding access would be a bigger shift. But note also that we have 54 percent who see it as the way of the future. So even if they think it is a little bit radical, they still see that that is the direction in which we’re heading.”

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...