County commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to support extending mail-in voting to Bexar County residents who fear coronavirus exposure at poll sites.

The resolution, which is nonbinding, states that voters who believe they may be injured by voting in person can request absentee ballots. Providing that option is crucial during the coronavirus pandemic, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said. Though experts don’t know if there will be a “second wave” of infections in the fall, there very well could be, he said.

“If we get to November and ignore this and stick our heads in the sand, we’ll look like a bunch of idiots,” he said.

The issue is currently before multiple courts and will be heard by U.S. District Court Judge Fred Biery Friday at the San Antonio federal courthouse. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton petitioned the Texas Supreme Court Wednesday to stop certain counties from accepting concerns over coronavirus exposure as valid reasons to vote by mail; Bexar County was not included in his petition.

In one of the legal cases, a 14th Court of Appeals panel on Thursday rejected Paxton’s attempt to place a ruling favoring an expansion of mail-in voting in Travis County on hold pending his appeal, the Texas Tribune reported. As a result, voters in Travis County concerned about possible exposure to COVID-19 can continue to request mail-in ballots under the Texas Election Code’s disability qualification.

Texas election law states that voters who are sick or have a “physical condition” that could injure their health if they vote in person qualify for early voting by mail.

“We’re educating the public about where the law stands in their favor,” Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) said of the Bexar County resolution.

“We saw in Wisconsin 50 folks got the virus after they waited in line at the polls. And if someone winds up in the University Health System and is uninsured, we end up paying. I hope no families end up having to pay in their lives.”

Primary runoff elections statewide were set for May 26 but were delayed until July 14. Early voting begins June 29 – a week earlier than usual. Requests for mail-in ballots must be received by July 2.

Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3), a Republican, pointed out that expanding mail-in ballot access has become largely divided by party lines. Democrats generally support the measure, while Republicans oppose it. But even though the issue has become highly politicized, Wolff said making sure more people can vote more easily is the right thing to do.

“I’m not making my decision based off of whether someone qualifies on disability,” he said. “Philosophically, I believe in expanding the ability of people to vote, period. If I can expand the option of vote-by-mail, I don’t really give a damn if they’re disabled or not. I care that it’s a clean process.”

County commissioners also unanimously approved a general spending budget for federal coronavirus relief funding Thursday; the federal government allocated $79 million to Bexar County. The budget included $7.7 million for LiftFund to provide small business loans and grants, $34.9 million to fund workforce retraining and job placement programs, $5.4 million for temporary rental assistance, and $1.1 million to bring internet access to people who need it in Bexar County. 

County staff are still working on spending specifics, Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) said. They will put out requests for proposals on different projects and bring contracts to the court to approve in the following months. A built-in $9.1 million in reserve funding allows the County some wiggle room in how to spend federal dollars.

“With things changing and the potential of another stimulus package, we want to maintain some flexibility,” Rodriguez said. “There is some short term funding, like [small business support through] LiftFund, that we want to deploy sooner than later.”

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.