After last week’s election debacle in Wisconsin, it makes sense that the Texas Democratic Party has filed two lawsuits, one in Austin and another here in San Antonio, aimed at Texas’s vote-by-mail provisions. 

At a time when citizens are ordered to stay in their homes and limit their interactions with fellow citizens, huge numbers of Wisconsin voters filed applications to vote by mail. Yet an extraordinary array of Republican power made sure that the votes of thousands of those who filed those applications would not be counted.

The applications so overwhelmed election clerks that thousands of Wisconsin voters received their mail ballots too late to be posted. Many received their ballots on or after election day. Yet when a Wisconsin judge quite reasonably ordered that the final vote count be delayed for several days so that most the ballots could be included, Republican officials filed an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. By a 5-4 vote, the Republican-appointed majority of the Supreme Court overruled the Wisconsin judge and disenfranchised those voters.

The motives of the Wisconsin Republican officials was quite transparent. The backlog was most severe in the state’s Democratic-leaning cities. In Milwaukee, the largest city, the reasonable fear of catching the coronavirus at a polling place was so prevalent that election officials were unable to properly staff 175 of their normal 180 polling sites. The result was extremely long lines at the five remaining voting sites and a devastating falloff in Democratic turnout. The amazing fact that they didn’t work renders the machinations no less ugly.

President Donald Trump explained Republican concerns when he talked about millions of dollars Democrats had tried unsuccessfully to include for expanded mail-in ballot costs in the recent $2.2 trillion stimulus law.

Trump complained that the Democrats “had things – levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Some Republican leaders disagree, and evidence indicates they are right. But others side with Trump, such as Republican speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives David Ralston, who said expanded absentee voting would be “extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia.”

How about Texas Republican leaders, most importantly Gov. Greg Abbott and his appointee, Secretary of State Ruth Hughs? So far they are obfuscating.

Abbott is too smooth to be as blunt as Trump and the Georgia House speaker. But the truth will be told through his and Hughs’ guidance on how to interpret a key section of the Texas law on absentee voting. It offers four justifications for voting by mail: being over 65, expecting to be out of state on election day, being in jail but not convicted, and being disabled.

The issue is: What does it mean to be disabled? The law says it is expecting to give birth around election day or having “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 lawyers representing the Texas Democratic Party argue that the physical condition justifying voting by mail under Texas law in a time of COVID-19 is being a human who breathes.

I agree, after a calculation. If there was a 1-in-100 chance of me getting a paper cut while voting, I would not consider it “a likelihood of … injuring” my health. On the other hand, if there’s a 1-in-500 chance of getting COVID-19 and taking it home to my family, the idea of chancing it takes my breath away. 

Jacquelyn Callanen, Bexar County’s elections administrator, said she and her fellow administrators are eagerly seeking direction from Abbott and Hughs. So far they’ve been disappointed, despite the fact that they have a primary runoff election on July 14, with early voting beginning July 6.

That is expected to be a low-turnout affair, but then there will be the presidential election Nov. 3. Passions for and against Trump and the record midterm election of 2018 prompt predictions of a record turnout. But some statistical coronavirus models also predict a November rebound period of high levels of infection.

Secretary of State Hughs sent out an advisory April 2 that noted that administrators should be ready for an increased number of absentee vote applications. It didn’t offer any clarification of who qualified, but made a possibly ominous reference to voters “that are affected by a recent sickness or a physical disability.” No mention of being scared sick of catching COVID-19. 

Callanen said she would like to see an expansive interpretation of who is eligible, partly out of concern for the safety of election workers who will be dealing with hundreds or thousands of voters. The fewer the better, for their safety and for that of the voters.

She notes that 60 percent of her poll workers are 65 years old or older, and thus particularly vulnerable to COVID-19’s more devastating effects. She said she has notified county officials that she may need to train some of their workers to staff the polls. 

Callanen has a reputation for encouraging voter participation, so it’s a bit jarring to see her listed as one of the defendants in the federal lawsuit that will be heard by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery here. The others are Abbott, Hughs, and Travis County Clerk Dana Debeauvoir. But lawyers for the Democrats have assured Callanen that it is not personal. They regard her as one of the best in the state, but her office must be included since the suit is filed here. It would likely also help to have her as a witness. 

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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.