AUSTIN — Officials across Texas will start their first major test in holding elections during the COVID-19 pandemic as polls open Monday for early voting in the state’s July 14 primary runoffs.
Democrats across the state will decide their nominee for the U.S. Senate, and there are several important GOP runoff races for Congress and the statehouse.
Though Secretary of State Ruth R. Hughs, the state’s top elections official, has issued minimum health protocols, the elections will be a dry run for local administrators preparing for the presidential contest, when voter turnout is expected to be much higher and possibly record-breaking.
“We’re saying this is the test election for November,” said Jacquelyn F. Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator. “This is the preview, and that is really nice because we’ll find out if some things work and some things didn’t work.”
Among the state’s safety protocols are requirements to keep voters and poll workers 6 feet apart, make hand sanitizer available to voters and regularly clean surfaces that are frequently touched.
But local election administrators say they plan to go beyond the state’s minimum standards.
Election officials are working to create safe ways for Texans to vote. In some areas, they will provide masks and face shields to voters who want them, and they are doing their best to reduce the amount of contact needed to vote.
“We want every Harris County voter to be able to vote in a way that is safe and efficient and gives them peace of mind that their vote will be counted,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins.
Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippins-Poole did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Masks, finger cots and Popsicle sticks
While officials can’t require voters to wear masks, most are strongly recommending it. In Travis County, officials are taking steps to isolate voters who choose not to wear a mask to put other voters at ease.
“If we have a few people who can’t seem to do that, they get to vote, but we are going to place them as far away from other voters as possible,” said Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir.
Travis County will also give voters finger cots and Popsicle sticks when they enter the polling location. The cots will cover the finger when voters are asked to sign their name on an electronic poll book. The Popsicle sticks will be used to tap choices on the ballot marking devices. Both will be thrown away after one use.
In Collin County, voters will use cotton swabs to tap their selections on voting machines, while in Bexar County voters will use pencils to sign in when arriving at the polling station and then use the eraser to tap selections on a voting machine.
In Dallas, voters will be given a stylus to sign in and make selections on voting machines. Those will be returned after voting and will be sanitized before being reused, but voters are urged to bring their own marking instruments.
Dallas voters should perform a COVID-19 self-assessment before heading to the polls. If they exhibit any symptoms, officials advise them to consider curbside voting.
The Dallas County elections website says that voters who require curbside voting can call 214-819-6340 to notify the early voting clerk that you want to vote curbside.
Some counties, like Bexar and Collin, will provide masks for voters. Others, like Travis, will not.
“It is important that Travis County not take on the liability of providing every voter upon request a proven clean mask,” DeBeauvoir said. “Voters need to provide their own clean mask.”
Several counties, including Dallas, have invested in plexiglass dividers to separate voters from poll workers during the check-in process. Some have also installed plexiglass on voting machines, which must be 6 feet apart.
In Bexar County, the plexiglass was chosen so that voters can hold their IDs in front of the glass and elections workers can scan through the glass. The state’s voter ID requirements are still in place for the election.
In Collin County, election workers will no longer handle a voter’s identification to verify its authenticity. Voters will be asked to place it into the scanning system.
“We’re trying to be as contactless as possible with the voters,” said Collin County Elections Administrator Bruce Sherbet.
‘Real concern’ in November
Counties will face other challenges, like finding voting locations big enough to keep voters and voting machines 6 feet apart, while losing access to previous voting locations like nursing homes and grocery stores that are not suitable for voting during a pandemic.
“If we’re socially distancing the equipment, then a voting location that can normally have 25 to 30 voting devices, you’re looking at probably reducing that by 50% or more,” Sherbet said. “So you’d get like 15 machines into a place that would normally fit 30 machines. That in itself will create lines.”
Elections administrators may catch a break because runoff elections usually have low voter turnout, which would make social distancing more manageable. But Sherbet is still focused on getting a good test run for what will likely be a much more contested election.
“The real concern isn’t really on this election; it’s the one in November,” he said.
Though election officials have lost access to large polling locations like nursing homes and grocery stores because of the virus, other sites like community colleges, which have mostly stayed closed, remain available.
Polling locations will likely limit the number of voters at each site. In Travis County, only 10 people will be allowed in a room at a time, so officials have advised voters to bring water and an umbrella in case of extreme heat or rain.
Some officials are trying to head off any crowding issues by increasing the number of voting locations despite the expected low turnout.
Worries about election workers
Elections administrators are also concerned about a potential shortage of election workers, as COVID-19 cases across the state — particularly in the major metro areas — increased dramatically last week.
Nearly 60% of poll workers in Texas are over 60, an age group that is at higher risk of complications from COVID-19, according to Charles Stewart, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In Bexar County, Callanen said the average age of election workers is 72.5.
“The best thing I can say is God bless them. Most of them have reached out and they want to work,” she said. “These are people that look at it as a civic duty.”
Dallas County will provide masks and gloves for all election workers.
Just in case, counties like Travis and Harris have increased the number of alternate poll workers they have on hand. In Travis, the primary elections in March got off to a rough start when poll workers did not show up to polling stations because they feared contracting the virus. In Harris, lines remained open until 1 a.m. because of massive voter turnout.
Travis has grown its on-call list from eight people to 80. Harris County has 15% more election workers signed up than needed and officials have also prepared county clerk employees to fill in if needed.
“We’re going to ask ‘Are you sure?’ and only when they really commit will we add them to the list so we can lessen the people who change their minds,” DeBeauvoir said. “What we really can’t handle is a no show on Election Day. I’m worried about it.”
The added health protocols for this election are also increasing county costs. In Travis, the county is spending an additional $1 million to make the necessary preparations. Harris County has doubled its $12 million elections budget with help from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
Many counties are applying for the $24.5 million in aid from the federal legislation, but challenges remain because of the competition in the market for some of the needed equipment.
In Bexar County, officials paid $55 for each tub of 300 sanitizing wipes, Callanen said.
DeBeauvoir in Travis said she ran into another issue: not getting into competition for equipment with first responders.
“If we were looking for something that could have gone to first responders, we asked for advice about changing it to something else because we didn’t want to compete with them,” she said.
Voting early and by mail
Because of the challenges expected during in-person voting, election administrators are urging people to cast their ballots by mail if they qualify or during the early voting period.
“We all know historically the first week is the slowest, and it’s human nature that it ramps up the last three days,” said Callanen. “We’ll push to have people come in the middle of the day. Don’t get there first thing in the morning and not at 4 in the afternoon. Come during quiet time so you can avoid the lines.”
After the elections, some officials plan to debrief with their teams to figure out what worked so they can make adjustments for November.
“It’s going to be challenging if you need to social distance in November and you won’t be able to double locations [then],” said Sherbet. “It’s just not feasible. We have to be very creative in thinking of best practices to make up for that.”