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In Texas, USPS woes and state deadlines could leave voters without enough time to return mail-in ballots
By Alexa Ura
In 9 of the 10 Texas counties with the most registered voters, almost 99% of nearly 199,000 votes cast by mail-in ballot during the July election were counted, and most that weren't were rejected by election officials because they arrived too late, according to an analysis by The Texas Tribune.
As the state braces for a significant increase in mail-in voting this November — and Republicans nationwide foment unsubstantiated concerns about widespread fraud — the low rejection rate during the Texas primary runoffs offers reassurance to those pushing absentee voting as safe and reliable during the coronavirus pandemic.But the small number of voters who missed the cutoff to submit mail-in ballots on time also highlighted longstanding disconnects between state election law and the realities of the U.S. Postal Service that may mislead voters into believing they have a larger window of time to vote by mail than actually exists.
Data gathered by the Tribune from nine major counties — Harris, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, Collin, Denton, El Paso, Fort Bend and Hidalgo — showed that 2,598 of 198,906 votes cast by mail-in ballot went uncounted. (Dallas County did not provide data.) Some were derailed by mistakes, like returning ballots without a signature. But Harris County alone accounted for 2,034 ballots that weren't counted based on tardiness. Overall, at least 2,114 ballots went uncounted because they arrived too late.
For most people voting absentee, Texas counties must receive completed ballots by Election Day. If they're postmarked by 7 p.m. that day, they'll be counted if they come in the next day by 5 p.m. The U.S. Postal Service recommends that Texans ask for mail-in ballots no later than 15 days out from that due date. But state law allows voters to request the ballots up until a week and a half before Election Day, so some may not receive their ballots until it's too late to mail them back in time.
The misalignment between the state's deadlines and USPS processes is hardly novel, but the ill-matched timelines will be newly tested this general election as more Texans are expected to try to vote by mail to avoid the health risks of voting in person. At the same time, a troubled U.S. Postal Service is facing cost-cutting measures and ensuing mail delivery delays.
Although they represent a small sample in a low-turnout election, the mailing woes that kept voters from being heard in the July runoffs are spurring local election officials and voting rights advocates to work to minimize similar problems come November.
"What we have been telling voters is that [voting by mail] is the safest and most secure way to vote, period, in a global pandemic," said Ali Lozano, voting rights outreach coordinator with the Texas Civil Rights Project. But some local officials "are fully aware that they have to do something because there is just no possible way they can maintain the same infrastructure and handle the inevitable influx of ballots they're going to get."
During the runoffs, the state's deadline for requesting mail-in ballots — 11 days out from Election Day — left a troop of Harris County election workers, including County Clerk Chris Hollins, working furiously on the Sunday of July Fourth weekend to send ballots to the last of the voters whose applications had come in.
The county had been told by the U.S. Postal Service that Texans hoping to have their votes counted should send back their completed ballots at least one week before the state's deadline for accepting mail-in votes. On that timeline, the Harris County voters whose applications for ballots were being processed that Sunday would possibly end up receiving their ballots on the same day they were already supposed to be on their way back to the county. And that was under the best-case scenario.
"We were well ahead of the cutoff legally, but in a COVID scenario, meeting the legal deadline is not helpful to voters," Hollins said. "It leaves them very much in a pinch."
Texans seeking to vote absentee must navigate the state's strict rules, the beleaguered postal system and, in November, a lightly used voting system that could be strained by a growing number of mail-in voters.
Texas is among the states that have not relaxed eligibility rules during the pandemic, fending off legal challenges by the state Democratic party and voting rights groups to allow all voters to apply for mail-in ballots during the pandemic. All voters 65 and older qualify for a ballot to fill out at home. Voters who are younger qualify if they will be out of the county during the election period, if they cite a disability or illness, or if they're confined in jail but still eligible to vote.
Those voters must deliver their applications for an absentee ballot either in person at their local elections offices before the start of early voting or by mail. (Applications can be submitted by fax or email, but the county must receive a hard copy within four business days.) Mailed applications can be received through the 11th day before Election Day — four days after the 15 days USPS says voters should consider as a cutoff.
To help navigate that mismatch, Harris County's to-do list for November includes purchasing more mail-sorting equipment and hiring hundreds of temporary workers who will be solely focused on processing voting-by-mail applications and ballots. Harris County posted voting-by-mail numbers in a typically small runoff election approaching general election figures, Hollins said, and the county will continue to encourage eligible voters to use the vote-by-mail option in the fall. With thousands of ballot styles to draw up for the general election, the complex endeavor requires ballot requests to be processed by hand.
The runoff election "was taxing on our system, so thinking about an election that's going to be seven or eight times larger than that in the fall, our operation has to be seven or eight times larger," said Hollins.
But not all Texas counties can attain that sort of exponential growth. In the mostly Republican county of Aransas — population 24,763 — the elections department is typically a two-person office. During the March primary, it took Election Administrator Michele Carew and her deputy eight days to get through mail-in ballot requests from Republican voters while still preparing for in-person voting.
Aided by the election funding her county received through the federal coronavirus relief package, Carew hired an election worker solely dedicated to mail-in ballots. But Aransas is facing a continuous stream of applications that will need to be fulfilled while the county prepares to manage six extra days of early voting that Gov. Greg Abbott ordered for the fall.
"Every day, we get up to a dozen requests," Carew said. "Before, it used to be far and few between."
Neither Abbott's office nor the Texas secretary of state's office responded to questions on what guidance the state is providing to local election officials on handling the dueling deadlines.
To bypass mailing issues, some other states rely on or are expanding the use of standalone ballot drop boxes that allow voters to hand-deliver their absentee ballots, but Texas law doesn't allow for them. To return their ballots, voters can either rely on the postal service or drop them off in person at their county elections offices.
Harris County used the runoffs to pioneer expanded ballot drop-off sites, opening up 11 of the county clerk's branch or annex locations for voters seeking to hand-deliver their ballots, and will be doing so again for the general.
But that option is seemingly unavailable in the large number of Texas counties where elections are overseen by an appointed administrator and not a county clerk with branch office locations. It's why Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator, is instead focusing on developing a campaign to "flatten the ballot-request curve" to convince voters to jump ahead of the state's deadlines and apply for mail-in ballots earlier in the calendar.
With work ongoing to finalize the county ballot, Callanen, like other election administrators, says she is aiming to get mail-in ballots into voters' hands at least 30 to 36 days out from Election Day.
"That is usually a race when we have these large elections because so many are involved, and right now with COVID, I'm literally hoping the right people will be working when we send the ballot proofs," Callanen said.
But voting rights advocates are calling for more adjustments to the state's voting practices during the pandemic, particularly increased options for dropping off ballots. Abbott has used executive power to delay the primary elections and extend early voting. Texas voters will also be able to drop off their completed ballots at county election offices.
Abbott's office, which indicated the governor will be voting in person in the general election, did not respond to questions on whether he would consider using executive power to enable Texas counties to set up drop boxes or additional drop-off sites.
"Gov. Abbott has used emergency powers before," said Lozano, with the Texas Civil Rights Project. "And I think this is an emergency."
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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After a long, long year without live music, Austin has waited patiently for a return that has finally come. Festivals are planning returns and even venues that adhered strictly to safety protocols during the pandemic are feeling safe enough to gather again in person.
Starting in just a few short days, you can finally enjoy what makes Austin, well, Austin again. Here are a few of the live shows to look forward to.
Stubb's Waller Creek, 801 Red River Street
For the first time since the pandemic shut the iconic venue down forcing canceled and rescheduled shows, Stubb's BBQ is reopening its amphitheater to the public for concerts starting with a series of five sold-out Black Pumas shows, each with different openers, from May 26-30. It may be too late to catch Black Pumas this time around but Stubb's already has a host of other shows scheduled up through December. You can catch Surfaces, a College Station-based jazz-pop-hip-hop and vocals heavy duo known best for their song "Sunday Best," on Stubb's Stage on June 25 while tickets go on sale this Friday.
Next at Stubb's is electronic duo Louis the Child on July 28 and 29 on their "Euphoria Tour," followed by Umphrey's McGee on Sept. 9.
Mohawk Austin, 912 Red River Street
Likewise, Mohawk Austin has remained closed for more than a year since the onset of COVID-19, even tweeting "Thanks bro but we ain't gonna do it till it's safe," in response to Gov. Greg Abbott lifting all safety restrictions back in March. Starting May 27, Mohawk is officially back with Heartless Bastards and opener The Tender Things.
From there, Mohawk has an exciting lineup—Jukebox the Ghost will play on Sept. 10, Bully and opener Lightning Bug on Sept. 17, Big Freedia and Too Many Zooz on Oct. 4 and Beach Bunny on Dec. 14, with several talented artists in-between. Keep checking back though, Mohawk will continue to add shows and is currently planning on operating at 50%.
Frank Erwin Center, 1701 Red River Street
Though it is making a later comeback than Stubb's or Mohawk, the Frank Erwin Center will make a huge return on Aug. 14 featuring Tame Impala. If you missed their highly popular set at Austin City Limits Festival in 2019 or you want to relive it, this is the chance to do so. Plus, you get the added benefit of being able to see the stage, though you will still be watching with around 16,000 other spectators. Michael Bublé will have you swooning when he comes to perform on Sept. 20 and Chris Stapleton is taking his "All American Road Show" live on Nov. 4.
Nutty Brown Amphitheatre, 12225 US-290
Holding some socially distanced concerts earlier this year, the Nutty Brown Amphitheatre isn't stopping there with rap artist Ginger Billy playing two sets on May 7. Nutty Brown has a star-studded lineup ahead: Austin-based Bob Schneider on May 8 and other Austin favorite Shinyribs will grace the stage May 29. A little further down the line, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts will take over on Aug. 21 followed by Styx on Oct. 23.
Texas Performing Arts Center, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
If you prefer a little bit more visual appeal to go with your music, the Texas Performing Arts Center is reopening in-person after consistent online events. First up is Cody Ko and Noel Miller, a multi-hyphenated YouTuber-podcaster-comedian duo, who will perform their "Tiny Meat Gang – Global Domination," on July 31. Of course you can't miss The Beach Boys, coming to the theater on Oct. 24, or a two-week long production of Hamilton from Dec. 7-19. For all the young ones that have missed going out in-person, "Disney Princess—The Concert" is coming to the Texas Performing Arts Center on Feb. 6, 2022, performing timeless gems like "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast and featuring all their other favorite princesses. Tickets go on sale this Friday.
Remember to jump on those tickets–Austinites have been missing their live music!
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For Marco Silvestrini, gelato takes him back to his childhood when he and neighborhood kids in a small Italian town would end their day at the local gelato shop. It was part of what made some of the best memories for him.
He's since been offering that same experience for the past seven years with his artisanal gelato shop, Dolce Neve, in Austin, alongside his sister and her husband.
Leo Ferrarese, Marco and Franscesa Silvestrini run Dolce Neve. (Dolce Neve)
While gelato always played a big role in Silvestrini's life, it wasn't in his plans to take on a business with his favorite treat. After a few years in New York working as a management consultant, he felt he was missing out on something. "I decided to take a step back and started thinking, what could... I do to make society better and happier, even just for a moment," Silvestrini said.
He thought back to his childhood and the role gelato played in it and wanted to offer the same experience to Americans.
Once he had the product idea down, it came down to location. Growing up among farmers in a small community in Central Italy, Silvestrini knew he wanted a slower pace of living than New York, so he asked around. The answer he got: "Austin." The only thing he knew about what would become his future home was it had a Formula 1 track.
But after visiting once, he felt a great sense of community he didn't feel in The Empire State. "I felt it was not just a good place for a concept like mine, but also a good place to live because at the end of the day, you cannot just think about your business," he said.
"Dolce Neve" translates to "sweet snow." The shops offers 12-18 flavors at a time. (Dolce Neve)
Similarly, his sister Francesca Silvestrini was experiencing the same feelings while studying for her Ph.D. in Ohio before teaming up with Silvestrini. She went back to Italy to be properly trained in making gelato while Silvestrini focused on the business plan. They brought Leo Ferrarese, her husband, onboard and opened their first shop on South First Street in January 2014. The rest is history.
On the menu, you'll find various traditional and innovative flavors that rotate out. Some of the staples include chocolate, 100% vanilla from Madagascar and salted caramel. Other rotating or seasonal flavors include whiskey and pecan, organic cantaloupe sorbet, goat cheese and pecan, almond custard and tiramisu. They've created over 300 flavors together in the span of the business.
So what's next for the shop? Lately, Silvestrini has been thinking a lot about that. With two locations in Austin, one in Houston—he's just not sure if expanding more is the right move. Maintaining a quality product and good service is of utmost importance that he's not willing to sacrifice.
"In order to be happy, it's not about making money, it's about being an integral part of the community," Silvestrini said. "There have been so many cases in which I think what I did today really made a difference in somebody's life."