How to safely vote in the presidential election
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The upcoming presidential election may be the most important of our lifetime. It also comes in the middle of a life-changing pandemic that has seriously altered election administration. Although election procedures continue to be finalized, we now have a solid idea of what our options are for voting in November and as the election judge for Rice’s polling location this year, I’m here to break it all down for you.
No one should have to choose between their physical health and safety and exercising their right to vote. In most states, including Texas, you can vote by mail or in person. You can vote by mail in nearly every state without an excuse, and in Texas you may vote by mail if you feel your personal health precludes you from voting in person. Apply to vote by mail in any state with TurboVote, or in Harris County with Harris Votes.
You may have heard about the ongoing changes to mail-in voting (sometimes referred to as absentee voting) across the country. Most states either automatically mail voters ballots, allow voters to request mail-in ballots without a reason or allow voters to cite the fear of COVID-19 as a legitimate reason for mail-in voting. Unfortunately, Texas’ stance on this question is a gray area. One way to qualify for vote-by-mail in Texas is by having an illness or disability. The Texas Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that a lack of immunity to COVID-19 may be considered as a factor in determining whether in-person voting creates a “likelihood of injury” to the voter’s health, but it cannot be the sole factor. It is the responsibility of voters to assess their own health based on prior underlying health conditions, perhaps in combination with COVID-19. The County Clerk’s Office does not have the authority to question the voter’s judgment on whether they qualify for having a disability or not. Voters do not need to write in what their disability is on the application to vote by mail; they only need to check the box. Voters who reasonably and in good faith believe they have an underlying health condition that qualifies them to vote by mail, as described by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Civil Rights Project, should not be scared to exercise their right to vote by mail.
You can print your mail-in ballot application from Harris Votes. You must submit your mail-in ballot application by mailing it to the Harris County Clerk’s Office. Friday, Oct. 23 is the last day to apply for a mail-in ballot in Harris County, meaning the ballot must be received this day, but I highly recommend you do so as soon as possible due to potential mailing delays. Once you receive your mail-in ballot, you may submit it by mailing it to the County Clerk’s Office or by hand-delivering it to any of the Clerk’s 11 offices and annexes from 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., and provide a valid ID as if you were voting in-person. Your ballot must be turned in to the County Clerk’s Office by 7 p.m. on Nov. 3.
I understand that many will choose to vote in person, and I want to allay any worries you may have. Election administrators are trying hard to make in-person elections as safe as possible. In Harris County, County Clerk Chris Hollins and his office are implementing the Secure, Accessible, Fair, and Efficient Initiative, a number of measures designed to encourage the safe conduction of in-person elections. At each early voting and Election Day polling location in the county, physical distancing will be encouraged by tape and signs both in line and in the polling location. Masks will be offered to all voters who are not already wearing one. Hand sanitizer will be available for all voters. Finger coverings will be provided to all voters to operate the voting machine. All voting machines will be spaced at least six feet apart. All poll workers will wear masks, gloves and face shields and will be physically distanced from voters. Poll workers will also be greeting voters at the polling location and will help them safely navigate the polling location. Where possible, polling locations will have separate entrances and exits. All of these measures were implemented in July’s primary runoff election and received high praise from those who voted then.
There are two ways to vote without leaving your car for the November 2020 election. All polling locations will offer curbside voting to voters who do not wish to enter the polling location, but are only able to serve one voter at a time. In addition, nine polling locations will exclusively offer drive-thru voting where multiple voters can be served at the same time. A list of locations can be found on the Harris County Clerk's Instagram.
Early voting has also been expanded by a week, and will now start on Oct. 13 and you will be able to vote at any of 120 locations in the county, an increase from 46 in 2018. Polling locations are typically open from 7 a.m. - 7 p.m. Harris County is now offering 24-hour voting for select days. Seven polling locations will open at 7 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 29 and remain open overnight and until 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 30. A list of those locations can also be found on the Harris County Clerk's Instagram.
On Election Day, there will be over 750 polling locations open from 7 a.m. - 7 p.m., an increase from 740 locations in 2018. Voters in line at 7 p.m. will be allowed to vote. Voters will be able to vote at any location on Election Day. On Rice campus, there will be a polling location used as both an early voting and Election Day location, and will be staffed and run primarily by Rice students. This location will either be Reckling Park or the Rice Stadium, and will be confirmed soon.
I understand that voting in person may seem like a scary option this year. The threat of COVID-19 is a very real concern and one we all take seriously. Given that mutual understanding, we want to assure you that the election administrators are trying their hardest to make sure you can vote safely. Happy voting!
Mason Reece is the Election Day election judge for Rice’s polling location this year and the treasurer of Civic Duty Rice.
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