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A week from now, early voting will begin under very strange circumstances. Down in the pre-election polls, the president of the United States has already declared that the election is invalid, that it is being stolen by his opponents.
“Mail-In Ballots will lead to massive electoral fraud and a rigged 2020 Election,” he says, and repeats in more and more lurid ways every chance he gets.
He offers no evidence, and examples of mail-in ballot fraud big enough to affect even local elections are rare. The only recent one was two years ago in North Carolina, where a Republican operative was indicted and a congressional election rescheduled.
Attorney General William Barr is proving a willing soldier in amplifying this fog of war. He has said incorrectly that mail-in ballots aren’t secret and that people will bribe postal workers to give them ballots to file. He brought Texas into the fray, saying, “For example, we indicted someone in Texas, 1,700 ballots collected, he – from people who could vote, he made them out and voted for the person he wanted to. OK?”
Texas has four U.S. attorneys. You can call all four and ask about this case. Spoiler alert: It didn’t happen.
Meanwhile, Trump’s press secretary Kayleigh McEnany says: “What we want election night to look like is a system that’s fair, a situation where we know who the president of the United States is on election night. That’s how the system is supposed to work.”
No, it is not how it’s supposed to work. Our elections are not TV “reality” shows, with a resolution required after the last commercial. That would disenfranchise overseas members of the military.
I’m pleased to say there is a countervailing force to this unprecedented undermining of confidence in the election – and to the all-too-precedented voter suppression efforts exemplified by Gov. Greg Abbot’s dictum that even huge venues like Harris County can have only one secure drop-off place for elderly voters who applied to vote by mail but don’t trust a U.S. Postal Service that is being diminished by the campaign donor the president appointed as postmaster general.
Happily, Bexar County has a strong culture of encouraging voting and doing its best to count every vote.
Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen says that sometimes people make innocent errors. An elderly married couple might sit at their kitchen table, fill out their mail-in ballots, and put them in the interior envelope that goes inside the pre-addressed mailing envelope. That ballot must be signed on the edge of the flap on the back after it is sealed.
“Sometimes the couple gets the envelopes confused and sign each other’s by mistake,” she said. “If we find the signature on the outside to be a different person, we check to see if another voter is living at the same address. If so, we set the envelope aside and if we find that they signed each other’s envelope we paperclip the ballots together and accept both of them. We try to make every vote count.”
She said the verification system involves teams of one Republican and one Democratic official, each chosen by their party. They sit side-by-side and compare the signatures on the back of the envelope to up to six signatures they have on file. If they disagree, they turn it over to the judges of the Early Ballot Board, who also are appointed by their parties.
“We’re lucky because we’ve had the same leadership for years and they are very good,” she said. It is rare they can’t agree and also rare that signatures don’t match. She said in the primary this year, of more than 38,000 mail-in votes, the board rejected 49 ballots for signature mismatch, a little more than one-tenth of a percent.
If you have applied for a mail-in ballot, you can go here to see if the application has been received and the ballot mailed. After you mail the ballot, you can check to see if it has been received. If it hasn’t by Election Day, you can go to any polling place and tell an official. That official will arrange to cancel the mail-in ballot and allow you to vote in person.
President Trump has talked about sending thousands of poll watchers to monitor voting and vote counting. He has even talked about recruiting “sheriffs.” Under Texas law, each candidate has the right to send one poll watcher. That poll watcher must live within the territory of the office being sought. They must bring any concerns to the polling place’s election judge and may not speak to voters.
If someone tries to intimidate you either outside or inside the polling place, talk to an election official there or call 210-335-VOTE (8683). Callanen will have a cadre of sheriff’s deputies ready to be dispatched to investigate.
Some observers are concerned that Trump will declare that all sorts of mischief is underway in the counting of ballots in the days after Election Day. He could send in lawyers to argue over every mail-in vote. In some states, counting mail-in ballots isn’t allowed until the polls close on Election Day. Fortunately, Texas is not one of them.
Early votes can be counted after the early vote stations close on the Friday before Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 3. Callanen says they will be busy counting early votes all day Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. What’s more, in the big counties such as Bexar, the bipartisan Early Ballot Boards can begin on Oct. 21 to log mail-in ballots, confirm the signatures, take them out of their envelopes and prepare them to be fed into scanners on Halloween.
So mail your ballots early and we can avoid Kayleigh McEnany’s nightmare. The vast majority of mail votes and all the early votes cast at the polls beginning next Tuesday will be posted online not long after 7 p.m. on Election Day. That will probably be in the neighborhood of 70 percent of all ballots cast. Most of the rest will be posted online as the tallies arrive from the polling places. All that will be left will be the ballots postmarked by 7 p.m. on Election Day and arriving the next day for everyone except civilians and military personnel filing from out of the country, whose ballots are counted if they arrive within five and six days later respectively.
Callanen’s major concern has to do with volunteer polling place officials. She said she was “swamped” with volunteers after publicity was given to the number of elderly veteran election officials who will sit out this year because of the coronavirus. But training sessions are typically drawing only about 60 percent of those who said they would come. That makes Callanen nervous about potential no-shows.
There inevitably will be hitches with what is expected to be a massive turnout. But in Bexar County, only the closest of contests will demand the patience of partisans. You’ll be able to focus your anxiety on statewide and national elections.
Correction to last week’s column: I am indebted to reader Curtis Chubb, who pointed out that in last week’s column I fingered Lt. Gov. Asbury Bascom Davidson for authorizing the removal of the second story of the Long Barrack at the Alamo in 1913 while the governor was out of the state. Chubb kindly pointed out that Davidson served only until Jan. 20, 1913, and the real culprit was his successor, William Harding Mayes. Chubb also suggested that Mayes secretly did it at the behest of Gov. Oscar Colquitt, who had presented himself as a protector of the Long Barrack. He may be right. Mayes was culpable in another matter, however. He founded the University of Texas School of Journalism.