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Over the weekend, Austonia polled our readers: 85% say all Texans should be able to vote by mail in 2020.
State Democrats and civic organizations are pushing to expand mail-in voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic at the state's highest court—and against the backdrop of a national, decades-long partisan fight over voting rights.
Texas voters are eligible for a mail-in ballot if they are 65 years or older, disabled, out of the country during the voting period or in jail, and Travis County election officials say fear of contracting COVID-19 should be similarly qualifying.
But the Texas Supreme Court issued a stay on Friday blocking them from accepting mail-in voting applications from residents because of the pandemic; the case is ongoing.
Paxton staunchly opposes such an expansion. "Protecting the integrity of elections is one of my most important and sacred obligations," he said in a May 15 statement about the ruling, commending the Supreme Court's decision.
Mail-in voting has long been a politicized issue, with Republicans warning against the possibility of voter fraud and Democrats arguing that failing to let people vote by mail amounts to voter suppression.
Robert Henneke is general counsel for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin. The organization supports Paxton's interpretation of state law, which Henneke said helps prevent voter fraud and ensure election integrity.
Further, Henneke argued that there is no reason for voters to worry about contracting the coronavirus as the state continues its reopening plan. "The system is already safe," he said. "Voting now is as safe as going to the grocery store." Those who are at higher risk, such as the elderly and individuals with serious medical conditions, may already be eligible for mail-in voting, he added.
Most Americans disagree. According to a national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 70% of Americans favor allowing any voter to vote by mail, and two-thirds said it is likely the presidential election will be disrupted by the pandemic. In a poll of Austonia readers, 85% said universal mail-in voting should be allowed in Texas this November.
Wesley Story, a communications associate for the advocacy group Progress Texas, said attacks on mail-in voting are politically motivated.
"Voting fraud has been something that has been used to suppress voters for a very long time now, especially in our state by Republicans in office," Story said. "But the fact of the matter is that rampant voter fraud is a myth and voter suppression is very real."
Expanding mail-in voting is generally believed to benefit Democrats because it increases voter turnout, especially among those for whom voting in person may be inconvenient. However, a recent study by researchers at the Democracy & Polarization Lab at Stanford University found that universal mail-in voting "does not affect either party's share of turnout or either party's vote share."
Story also argued that increasing mail-in voting would help protect Texans' rights, pointing to other states—including red ones such as Georgia, Kentucky and Ohio—where officials have done so because of the pandemic. "By not expanding access to vote-by-mail our Republican leaders are essentially forcing Texans to choose between their health and safety and their fundamental right to vote," he said.
Henneke and Story agree on one point: the result of the Texas Supreme Court case has the potential to undermine voter confidence. "If there's disruption in the upcoming runoff election or the November election it may be really caused by these groups that are trying to force radical changes to a system that works," Henneke said.
For Story, the disruption could result from suppressed turnout. "We should be encouraging as many people as possible to turn out and vote because that's part of how a democracy is supposed to work," he said.
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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.