In hopes that a district court ruling will stand, the Harris County Commissioners Court yesterday authorized the county clerk to spend an additional $12 million to provide mail-in ballots for the 2020 elections.
Earlier this month, in response to a lawsuit filed by the Texas Democratic Party, Judge Tim Sulak of Travis County’s 353rd Civil District Court issued a temporary injunction that orders elections officials to allow anyone fearful of exposure to coronavirus the right to apply for an absentee ballot.
Although the state has appealed Judge Sulak’s injunction, Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman argued that the county’s election division should be prepared to accommodate a vast expansion of absentee voting.
In her request to the commissioners, Trautman said she wanted to scale up the elections division to process as many as 2.4 million mail voters. She claimed that ballot costs would increase by $4.60 to $7.73 per ballot due to printing, mailing, and processing costs, and that those estimates included costs for sanitization of polling sites and advertising to inform voters of the by-mail option.
Trautman did not, however, provide any breakdown of her cost estimates, leading to questions from the two Republican members of the commissioners’ court.
“I want to know why this request for $12 million is so vague,” said Commissioner Steve Radack (R).
In response, elections administrator Michael Winn said he would provide a detailed breakdown of the estimated costs at a future meeting.
Commissioner Jack Cagle (R) noted that during the last presidential election in 2016 there were only 2.2 million registered voters, and 1.2 million ballots cast in Harris County. In 2018 he said there were only 1.2 million ballots cast.
Cagle also expressed concern that Trautman had not provided to commissioners a plan on how the funds would be spent, and specifically how the elections division would implement changes.
“Let’s get a plan before we vote on this budget, especially when this budget is anticipating more people voting by [mail-in] ballot than we actually have ever had vote in an election, period,” said Cagle.
Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D) accused the Republican members of the court of reluctance to approve the funds due to “philosophical differences” regarding mail balloting.
“It’s personal for me; I’m making this motion in honor of my daddy, and people like him who had to pay a poll tax to vote,” said Ellis. “So I’m going to vote that we give Dr. Trautman the right to spend up to 12 million dollars to get ready for these next two important Democratic roll calls elections.”
Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D) said, “I am a little concerned that there’s… lack of planning in place,” but added that he would support the authorization and asked that Trautman and Winn be “very thoughtful about how this gets executed.”
Ellis and Garcia were joined by County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) in voting to approve the $12 million increase.
Prior to State District Judge Sulak’s injunction, only voters aged 65 and older, those disabled or ill, those outside of the county, or those in jail could legally qualify for the absentee ballots. Attorney General Ken Paxton has stated that “fear of contracting COVID-19 does not quality a person” for a mail-in ballot.
The Texas Democratic Party has filed a second lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in the hopes that a federal judge will force the state to expand votes by mail.
As The Texan has reported previously, local elections administrators have wide discretion in approving mail ballot applications, while the state reserves the right to enforce violations after the fact.
Trautman has also publicly stated that the county would not challenge any applications for absentee ballots based on “disability.” Her office has also sent elections workers an invitation to participate in a study entitled “Making voting safe for voters and poll workers.”
Earlier this year, the commissioners court approved a budget of $3.2 billion that included an elections division request of $12,362,000.
In 2018, several individuals in Fort Worth were arrested for tampering with and stealing elderly voters’ mail-in ballots.
Last week Harris County resident Colleen Vera filed a complaint with the Texas Secretary of State over alleged ballot harvesting using absentee ballots, and Democrat activist Aubrey Taylor of Houston Business Connections has also called for an investigation of harvesting of absentee ballots in Harris County Democratic Primary elections dating back to 2012.
Runoff elections in Texas originally set for May have been rescheduled to July 14. The 2020 General Elections will take place on November 3, with early in-person voting set to begin on October 19, 2020.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.