Bring Your Own Sanitizer, Pen: Texas Sets Safety Standards for In-Person Voting

May 28, 2020by Chuck Lindell, Austin-American Statesman (TNS)
Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs has issued advice on safety standards for in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/TNS)

AUSTIN, Texas — With Texas Republican leaders fighting efforts to expand mail-in voting during the pandemic, the state’s top election official has issued guidelines designed to improve the safety of polling places, voters and election workers.

Voters were advised to bring their own pen to sign documents as well as hand sanitizer to disinfect after voting and interacting with poll workers or other voters.

Secretary of State Ruth Hughs also suggested that voters consider wearing a face covering — but be prepared to remove it briefly if the election judge needs to confirm their identity — and maintain a 6-foot separation from others “to the extent feasible.”

The suggestions, Hughs said in the advisory, were intended to set minimum standards to protect health during in-person voting, with stricter protocols allowed if required by local needs.

“The virus that causes COVID-19 is still circulating in our communities,” Hughs wrote, adding that following the recommendations will be important because the coronavirus “can be spread to others by infected persons who have few or no symptoms.”

Those favoring expanded mail-in voting — the subject of legal battles in three different courts — found Hughs’ recommendations lacking.

“If we are serious about slowing the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives, we should immediately expand vote by mail in a way that protects the integrity of the election process,” said state Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson.

“Republican and Democratic-led states across America have acted swiftly to protect voters during a global pandemic, and Texas should join them,” Powell said.

An extended early voting period, set by Gov. Greg Abbott in an effort to reduce crowding at the polls during the pandemic, begins June 29 for the statewide primary runoffs and a special election to replace former state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, in a district that includes all of Bastrop County and the northern two-thirds of Travis County.

The secretary of state’s safety advisory was intended to be released last week but was delayed by rapidly changing court rulings that first expanded mail-in voting, then put the expansion on hold while the cases continue.

The Texas Democratic Party is leading the legal fight, saying voters should not have to risk their health to exercise their right to vote.

The state’s Republican leaders are fighting the effort, saying mail-in ballots are susceptible to fraud, which is why state law strictly limits the practice to those with a disability, are 65 or older, will be out of the county or are in jail.

Thus far, a state and a federal district judge have backed the Democratic position, issuing separate rulings that said the lack of any immunity to the potentially deadly coronavirus meets the state election law definition of a disability, which allows any voter to request a mail-in ballot.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed, and both of those rulings have been temporarily blocked by separate appeals courts.

In one of the cases related to mail-in ballots, a lawyer for Paxton told the Texas Supreme Court last week that the extended early voting period for the July 14 elections, plus the safety advisory from the secretary of state, showed that state officials were up to the challenge of protecting voters’ health.

“The judicial branch should not rewrite the Election Code out of policy concerns that are already being addressed by the executive branch,” state Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins told the court.

But Lauren Banister with TexPIRG, a liberal advocacy group, said Hughs’ advisory offered little assurance that in-person voting will be safe.

“A simple way to ensure polling locations are safe is reduce the number of people who need to show up on election day. Gov. Abbott took the first step when he extended the early voting period. Now the state must allow more people to vote at home,” Banister said.

County election officials also have expressed concerns about finding enough poll workers willing to spend hours indoors while interacting with multiple voters. The possible need to combine polling sites could worsen crowding, they have said.

Abbott appointed Hughs as secretary of state in August.

In her advisory, issued Tuesday, Hughs suggested that voters with COVID-19 symptoms — difficulty breathing, coughing, chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, loss of taste or smell, diarrhea or a fever above 100 — use curbside voting in which an election worker brings a ballot to a voter who remains outside.

The advisory also included a number of recommendations for polling place officials:

—Make hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, soap and water or other disinfectants readily available to workers and voters.

—Immediately disinfect any item that comes into contact with a voter and regularly clean doorknobs, chairs, check-in tables, writing utensils, voting equipment and ballot boxes.

—Have polling place workers sanitize their hands after interacting with voters or other workers.

—Consider having poll workers wear cloth face coverings at all times.

—Provide floor markings setting a six-foot separation between waiting voters and arrange voting stations at least six feet apart.

—Send home any worker who has COVID-19 symptoms or who has had close contact with a COVID-19 patient in the previous 14 days.

———

©2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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