It took a doctor’s note and mad dash to Sonic for this coronavirus sufferer to vote

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After a state district judge denied her request for help getting an emergency absentee ballot because she has tested positive for coronavirus, it took a mad dash to a Sonic restaurant between Austin and Lockhart for Linda Elizabeth Harrison to vote Tuesday.

Harrison, a 62-year-old pediatric nurse, learned she had contracted the virus July 2 — the cutoff day for Texans to ask for mail-in ballots for the primary runoffs. Her husband, Vernon Webb, was tested soon after and learned of his positive result July 9, just before the end of early voting. Under medical orders to self-quarantine, the couple have been enduring respiratory issues, fatigue and other symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

"It's pretty much hit us like a ton of bricks," Harrison said Tuesday, speaking low in between coughs. "It's just been a nightmare."

Both regular voters, the couple hadn't weighed their voting options until the eve of election day, when Harrison learned from their daughter that they'd need a doctor's signature to request emergency mail-in ballots. Voting in person or curbside seemed out of the question. But after reaching out to her doctor's office Monday night, Harrison didn't have the signoff she needed by midday Tuesday.

The couple filed a lawsuit in state district court in Travis County on Tuesday afternoon, hoping a judge would help waive the doctor’s note requirement so they could get ballots. Lawyers with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represented them, argued that the state’s criteria for applying for an emergency absentee ballot is unconstitutional and imposes an undue burden on the right to vote. Unlike applications received before the deadline to vote by mail, voters submitting applications for emergency ballots must submit certification from a doctor that the voter has developed an illness that would keep them from being able to vote in person.

The lawsuit filed against Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir sought a temporary restraining order requiring the clerk to accept a late mail ballot application without requiring a physician’s note and then to accept and count Harrison’s and Webb’s ballots as properly completed so long as they were returned by 7 p.m. Tuesday.

“Defendant’s practice effectively treats Plaintiffs and voters who were diagnosed with the same illness just a few days prior in a different manner, allowing one to self-attest to their illness while requiring the other to obtain a doctor’s certification, imposing additional burdens and costs,” their lawyers wrote in their petition.

With the clock counting down, a Texas Civil Rights Project intern was waiting at the clerk's office with Harrison's and Webb's applications in hand.

"The exact story of Vernon and Linda is very much a pandemic story," said Mimi Marziani, the president of the civil rights organization. "I don't think you have to zoom out very far to see how this points to more systemic issues."

Unlike other states, Texas has declined to expand eligibility for mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic, with state Republican leaders successfully fighting off Democratic and civil rights groups' push for that in court.

With strict eligibility criteria, voting by mail is not widely used in Texas. The option is generally reserved for voters who are 65 and older, those who cite a disability or an illness, and those who will be out of the county they’re registered in during the election period.

In other states, voters don't have to offer an "excuse" to obtain an absentee ballot, Marziani noted, and the burden voters like Harrison and Webb face is built upon the state's excuse requirements.

The Texas secretary of state’s office has instructed local election officials that the emergency ballot application can be used for voters who contract the virus after the regular deadline for mail-in ballots. But voters who submit an application to vote by mail on the basis of a disability or an illness before the regular deadline are not required to say what the condition is, nor do they have to submit any proof. In filling out their application, they simply check a box on the form. Local officials processing applications are not allowed to question or investigate their reasoning.

Around 5 p.m., the couple's request to the court was denied. Around the same time, the certification Harrison needed from her doctor finally came through. Her husband would be left without a ballot.

"I just didn't realize it was going to be this difficult," Harrison said from home Tuesday afternoon. She had voted absentee before while working as a traveling nurse, and she questioned why she couldn't simply show the county the results of her coronavirus test. "I just don't think it should be this hard to vote."

With the doctor's note in hand, the Texas Civil Rights Project's intern, Katya Ehresman, was ready to ferry Harrison's ballot to her so she could fill it out. But while Harrison is an Austin resident, she's been quarantining in Lockhart, nearly 40 minutes away.

The two agreed to meet halfway, selecting a Sonic as their destination. Upon arriving, they realized the restaurant's lot didn't offer enough room to exchange the balloting materials at a safe distance, so they moved away from the lit-up ordering kiosks and over to a parking lot nearby.

Ehresman dashed back to the clerk's office with Harrison's votes safely stored in a blue envelope marked "Official Ballot." The glove she had been using to avoid contact with the materials ripped in the car, so she improvised and headed into the office with a white T-shirt wrapped around the hand holding the ballot.

She arrived with four minutes to spare.

Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state’s office has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.