Coalition letter to Texas Secretary of State

Today, TexPIRG joined in the calls for leadership from Texas' Secretary of State. With the pandemic spreading and social distancing remaining one of our most powerful tools to curtail the spread of the virus, advocacy groups want the Secretary to step up and provide guidance to counties across the state on how to conduct remote voting, or vote-by-mail.  We are proud to stand with such a distinguished group of organizations and individuals pushing for the public interest, in this case, our right to fully participate in our democracy without endangering ourselves and others. 

Advocacy groups from all spheres want remote voting

Dear Secretary Hughs, As you know, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on public and private life across Texas and threatens to upend the upcoming Texas elections in May 2020. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) has issued national guidance telling the public to avoid gatherings of more than fifty people for at least the next eight weeks (through May 15, 2020). Governor Abbott has declared a 1 state of emergency, and state agencies are taking extraordinary steps to contend with this new 2 reality. School districts statewide have canceled classes for the foreseeable future. Some Texas 3 4 counties have banned large public gatherings, and restaurants and bars in other states have been 5 ordered closed. The latest guidance from the Trump Administration advises against gatherings of 6 over 10 people.7

The May 26, 2020 runoff elections are quickly approaching, with some local elections occurring even earlier than that. The deadline to request a mail ballot for the May 02 Uniform Election date is April 20, and the last day to do so for the Runoff is May 15. You have authority under existing law to issue advisory guidance instructing counties to allow all eligible voters to vote by mail in the upcoming May elections — you must do that without delay. You should also make clear that, depending upon how this public health crisis progresses, widespread eligibility to vote-by-mail may extend to the November 2020 Election.

Pursuant to state law, a voter qualifies to vote by mail “if the voter has a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood . . . of injuring the voter’s health.” As detailed in part above, elected officials and government agencies from local school boards to the CDC have recognized the extraordinary nature of this pandemic and taken extreme measures to try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Under these unprecedented circumstances, it is clear that merely going to a crowded venue, such as any polling location, in person constitutes a likelihood of injuring a voter’s health. And the more people who risk their own health by gathering in groups also exponentially increases the risk of spreading the disease to others and causing greater societal damage. As has already been demonstrated by elections in other parts of the world, individual Texans are likely to mitigate their own risks by simply not showing up at the polls to vote.8

Texans should not be asked to choose between their physical well-being and their fundamental right to vote. Fortunately, the Texas Legislature has seen fit to provide voters who face threats to their physical well-being the option to vote by mail. Given that this is not the typical scenario under which voting by mail is conducted, it is incumbent on your office to issue guidance to counties to make clear that, at least as it pertains to the current, unprecedented circumstances, this widespread COVID-19 pandemic constitutes a sufficient circumstance for any eligible voter to vote by mail in the upcoming primary runoff election or any local elections taking place before that date. This is a statewide — indeed worldwide — crisis, and it is important that counties provide uniformity to voters. Counties also need time to prepare for the increased logistical needs of receiving more mail-ballot applications, so time is of the essence in issuing guidance to county officials. As Texas’s Chief Election Officer and as a leader of our state, it is your duty to provide this uniformity and guidance during this tumultuous time.9