A moon or three ago I committed a blatant felony in this space. I urged all citizens to vote by mail during the COVID-19 crisis. This was at a time when a state district judge and a federal judge, both Democrats, had ruled that a fear of contracting the deadly coronavirus and possibly spreading it to vulnerable family members justified voting by mail. They ruled that being vulnerable to the virus because there was no available vaccine qualified as a medical condition under Texas law.

Attorney General Ken Paxton had sued to overturn those rulings. He also had warned election officials that Texas law required that a voter had to be suffering actual symptoms or have a formal diagnosis of illness to qualify. He cited a provision in that law that made it a felony to advise people to break the law. That was the provision I knowingly violated.

Regrettably if predictably, both the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court and the very conservative federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Paxton that you had to be actually suffering from the coronavirus to vote by mail, not just fear getting and spreading it.

I now withdraw my advice. I even repent of it, sort of. The reason is not that urging vote-by-mail for people who have good reason to fear acquiring the coronavirus is a felony. I have changed my mind because I have come to believe there is a better way.

Two major factors have convinced me. The first involves mail-in ballots, for which I see three problems.

A ban on overtime at the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service has reportedly already delayed first-class deliveries and could result in many votes being invalidated. There are other concerns with the postal service. According to media reports, three tubs of ballots were discovered after a recent Wisconsin election and never reached the intended voters. In Ohio, hundreds of ballots that were postmarked on time arrived too late to be counted.

There are two other issues with mail-in ballots. One is that a large increase in mail-in ballots would strain elections staff and lead to delays. Such delays could be exploited by the likes of President Trump and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who charge without evidence that Democrats plan to use mail-in ballots to “steal the election.” 

In addition, ballots submitted by mail can lead to officials having to make judgments as to their validity, such as when a signature on the ballot doesn’t exactly match a signature on file. Some of those judgment calls are bound to be wrong. 

So what to do? Vote early! Here are the reasons:

Bexar County Elections Department staff demonstrated in last month’s primary runoff that they can run polling locations safely. They even gave you a free pencil that allowed you to sign in and use the eraser as a stylus for machine voting so that you didn’t touch anything that had been touched by others. The attention to detail was impressive. For example, voters were offered a pair of disposable gloves at the door, but were asked to pull out their ID cards before putting them on so they didn’t have to try later to get the ID out with the gloves on. 

Gov. Greg Abbott has extended early voting by six days, stretching it out to two-and-a-half weeks beginning on Oct. 13. Though this will thin out the crowds, they will still be substantially more than the low-turnout primary runoff. Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen has anticipated that by setting up several “mega-centers,” including the AT&T Center, where she anticipates having as many as 100 voting machines. 

These centers also will be available on Nov. 3, when under new regulations citizens can vote at any polling place, just as with early voting. More people voting early will make election day easier for voters and election staff.

The final reason I now favor voting early is that tallying the early vote is much more efficient than the hand tallies required of mail-in ballots. Computers tally the totals and there are no judgments required, such as matching signatures. This efficiency can make election night much less nerve-racking, at least in local races, since the early vote totals can be tallied and announced not long after the polls close. With that vote substantially exceeding election-day votes in recent elections, the early vote has become highly predictive of the end results.  

Early voting will work well, however, only if enough citizens volunteer to work the polls to replace the large number of elderly citizens who traditionally make up more than half of poll workers. Many of them quite reasonably don’t want to take chances with getting exposed to the virus. 

It would be especially great if employers encouraged young employees to fill in and gave them time off to assist with the democratic process. The work is paid: $15 an hour for clerks who guide voters to machines and give instructions and $17 an hour for the election judges. They verify voter credentials and sign them in. Judges are required to attend a day-long training session. 

Callanen said volunteers available only on the weekends will be welcomed. She was delighted when an AT&T Center official asked if there was work for their ticket-takers, ushers, and vendors, who have lost a number of concerts and much of the Spurs season. 

If you can help, fill out an application here

Candidates, their finance chairs, and campaign directors need not apply. Also anyone who thinks they can help a candidate by being a judge or clerk is unwelcome. It has happened on occasion. 

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Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.