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As President Donald Trump rails against the idea of expanding mail-in voting, resists new funding for the U.S. Postal Service and oversees operational changes that have slowed mail delivery, local election officials, voter mobilization groups and Texas Democrats are raising alarm about the suppression of mail-in votes this November.
But they say they still plan to push voting by mail as a safe way to cast a ballot.
The Postal Service has implemented numerous cost-cutting measures in recent months that have raised concerns about whether people's mail-in ballots will be delivered on time, even as many states other than Texas have expanded mail-in voting to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus at the polls. In late July, it warned Texas officials that some ballots cast by mail may not arrive in time to be counted for the November election thanks to certain state deadlines being incompatible with its delivery standards.
And on Thursday, Trump specifically said he opposed additional funding for the U.S. Postal Service because Democrats "need that money in order to make the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots."
That continued a pattern of Trump steadfastly fighting the expansion of mail-in voting, saying without evidence that it leads to voter fraud. Top Republican leaders in Texas have taken similar stances — and have largely remained silent during Trump's recent actions.
Still, many other groups are pushing people to not be deterred.
“I think the goal of Donald Trump’s comments are to destabilize faith in voting systems and we’ll be telling them the truth that voting by mail is safe and secure,” said state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood. “We’ll counteract fear with facts.”
Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said eligible voters in the state's most populous county who are worried about delays in the mail will be able to drop off their mail-in ballots at any of the county's 11 offices "beginning whenever they receive their ballots and continuing through Election Day, November 3, at 7:00 PM."
"Preserving every eligible citizen’s right to vote is a pillar of our democracy," he said in a statement. "My office is doing everything in our power to withstand the challenges of the ongoing global pandemic and uphold this essential right for eligible voters. But it is shameful that partisan politics has led to the destruction of the United States Postal Office – an institution we need dearly right now."
Hollins stressed that "despite this latest form of voter suppression, voting by mail remains the safest method for Texans to vote this November."
Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party, said it is working to send out 1.7 million vote-by-mail applications to eligible Texans — the largest number in the party’s history. The party has already sent out 900,000 and is sending out the other 815,000 this week, he said.
“We believe strongly that Texans should be able to vote safely and securely during the time of the pandemic,” Rahman said. “Vote by mail is good for democracy, good for our state and good for our country.”
Regarding the president’s recent comments, Rahman said the party will continue to utilize its voter protection team, in addition to a website designed to help register all voters in the state.
“I think that Texans will crawl over broken glass to vote Donald Trump out of office and be vigilant to make sure their vote is counted,” he said.
Under current state law, mail-in ballots are available only if voters are 65 or older, cite a disability or illness, will be out of their home county during the election period or are confined in jail. The Texas election code defines disability as a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents a voter from appearing in person without the risk of “injuring the voter’s health.”
Three of Texas' top Republican leaders — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton — have vigorously fought efforts to expand mail-in voting this year. But all three have cast absentee ballots at least once in past elections.
There has been a long list of voting lawsuits filed against Texas and election officials this year — including so-far unsuccessful attempts to make mail-in ballots available to all voters during the pandemic.
The Texas Supreme Court found in May that the lack of a coronavirus immunity alone does not meet the state election code's definition of disability, but it could be considered a factor as part of a voter’s medical situation. The court reiterated that it is up to voters to assess their own health and determine if they meet the election code's definition of disability.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected state Democrats’ attempt to expand voting by mail to all Texas voters in time for the July primary runoff elections. In yet another case, Mi Familia Vota, the Texas NAACP and two Texas voters filed a federal lawsuit that claims Texas’ current polling place procedures — including the likelihood of long lines and Abbott's decision to not require voters to wear masks — place an unconstitutional burden on voters while the virus remains in circulation.
That burden will be particularly high for Black and Latino voters whose communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus, the lawsuit argues.
But even without an expansion of mail-in voting, millions of Texans qualify because of their age, location or disability. The deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot is October 23, and the completed ballots must be received by county election officials by 7 p.m. on Election Day if they aren't postmarked — or 5 p.m. the next day if they're postmarked on Election Day or before.
The changes at the Postal Service have raised concerns that the process will be slowed down. In the name of cutting costs, the agency has reportedly reduced overtime for workers, banned extra trips used to make sure mail is delivered on-time and is decommissioning 10% of its mail sorting machines. According to The Washington Post, sorting capacity in Houston alone has dropped by 470,000 pieces of mail per hour. Those changes will have an effect on businesses that depend on the mail and people who use it to receive their paychecks or prescriptions, among many other things. But they also have the potential to make it harder for people to get their ballots in before the deadline.
Voter mobilization groups say they will encourage voters to send their ballots in as early as possible to avoid any risk of the delays affecting their vote.
“Our goal as a state should be to have the greatest possible number of Texans vote and for them all to be equally heard at the ballot box,” Drew Galloway, the executive director of MOVE Texas, which works to engage young voters, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “This means expanding on popular and secure reforms like mail-in ballots.”
Galloway also said the group’s organizers “received countless calls” before the primary runoff elections in July with questions about late absentee ballots — many of which, he said, were not received or arrived too late.
“This is unacceptable,” he said.
Republicans in Texas have largely remained quiet on the issue. The Texas GOP did not respond to questions for this story. A spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, did not answer a specific question about his opinion on the funding proposed by Democrats to support voting by mail. Instead, the spokesperson criticized Democrats' broader coronavirus relief proposal and repeated Trump's unfounded claims about voter fraud, saying Cruz "has said that mail-in voting is a direct invitation for ballot harvesting and voter fraud, which will erode the public’s confidence in our election process."
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, did not answer questions about whether he supports funding the Postal Service or is concerned that Trump is undermining the agency.
Texas Democrats in Congress have meanwhile been raising alarms.
In a Friday statement, U.S. Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia, D-Houston, called Trump's actions and statements an attack against the country's economy and democracy.
"Families in the Houston region and across the country rely on the United States Postal Service to vote by mail, receive life-saving prescription drugs and run their businesses," Garcia said. "This is why we must protect and fund the postal service. [Trump] is trying to corrupt the integrity of our democracy and our elections for personal gain. He must be held accountable because he continues to be a clear danger to the future of our constitution and democracy."
Garcia was one of 10 Texas Democrats in the U.S. House to sign a letter Wednesday calling on Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to address the operational changes. In the letter, the congressional members pointed at policies that weaken the ability of the Postal Service to respond to local needs, including a policy instructing post offices to stop treating election mail as first class, which they said will "disenfranchise voters and put significant financial pressure on election jurisdictions."
Trump has still left the door open for some additional funding making its way to the Postal Service — if a deal can be reached with Democrats on a coronavirus package. After initially asking for $25 billion to go to the Postal Service during talks with Republicans on the next coronavirus package, Democrats are now pressing for $10 billion. A portion of the money would help with election mail. Still, Congress is nowhere close to finalizing a deal.
"If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money," Trump said told Fox Business Network on Thursday. "That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting; they just can’t have it."
MOVE Texas 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.