100% Austin news, info, and entertainment, straight to your inbox at 6 a.m. every morning.
In five minutes, you're fully informed and ready to start another great day in our city.
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.
- Travis County sees surge in mail-in voting applications - austonia ›
- U.S. Sen. John Cornyn faces Round Rock's MJ Hegar for TX seat ... ›
- Texas U.S. senators push back on Trump's call to delay presidential ... ›
- 5 things Austin learned about voting in a pandemic - austonia ›
- election-2020 - austonia ›
Everyone wants to be in Austin—tech, celebs and now sports. At least that's what it looks like.
In the midst of a first season for Austin FC, the city's first major league professional sports team, the Buffalo Bills are reportedly looking at a possible move to Austin.
The news comes from ESPN's Seth Wickersham, who reports the NFL team is saying it is considering a move from New York to Austin, possibly to push public funding of its new $1.5 million stadium.
An ownership source tells me that Austin is a possible destination—or threat—as one of the “other cities elsewhere that desire an NFL franchise and would pay handsomely for it." https://t.co/zMf1oChO8K
— Seth Wickersham (@SethWickersham) August 1, 2021
Austin was without a major pro team until Austin FC came to town. While all eyes have been on Austin's "boomtown" status, the city isn't exactly expected to get an NFL team with two other major teams in the state—the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans.
Nevertheless, the governor and mayor responded to the rumor.
- Austin FC's Q2 Stadium is the biggest party in Austin - austonia ›
- Austin FC spends less than most first-year expansion teams - austonia ›
- Austin's Latino's feels "close to home" with Austin FC - austonia ›
- Guide to Austin FC home game at Q2 Stadium this Saturday - austonia ›
Editor's note: Addie Broyles is a longtime food writer, who wrote for the Austin American-Statesman for 13 years. This piece was published in her weekly newsletter, "The Feminist Kitchen," where she shares stories about parenthood, grief, ancestry, self healing and creativity. Check it out here.
You know Bruce McCandless' most famous moment, but you probably don't know his name.
McCandless is the astronaut who, in 1984, became the first untethered astronaut in space. He's the guy on those posters, mugs, shirts and everything else NASA could sell with the image of his "leisurely waltz with eternity," as his son calls it in his new book, "Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space."
'Wonders All Around' is a new book by Austinite Bruce McCandless III about his dad, the astronaut Bruce McCandless II. (Bruce McCandless III)
I met McCandless III, who lives in Austin with his wife Pati, for a coffee a few months ago, thanks to the introduction from a mutual friend. As we talked about losing our dads, being writers and parents and living in Austin while still dealing with COVID, his dad's famous flight didn't come up, but the process of writing such an epic biography of a complex, only recently passed man was something worth unpacking over coffee.
I hadn't read the book yet, but over the next few weeks, I got to know the McCandless family in such a sweet way that I wanted to write a little about the book here to perhaps inspire you to seek out a copy of "Wonders All Around."
As much as this is a book about space, it's also a book about grief. And persistence. And stoicism. And masculinity and maternality.
The elder McCandless died in 2017, just a few years after losing his wife, Bernice, to cancer.
This passing of the torch from father to son left the younger McCandless inspired to take on this decades-long narrative. McCandless III sets the tone for the book with a memory of the family sitting around the dinner table at their home outside Johnson Space Center near Houston in the mid 1970s, when his dad, who joined NASA in 1966 at the age of 28, wasn't sure he'd ever actually make it to space.
"Our dinners were somber affairs. We ate around a rectangular Formica table in the breakfast nook. Tracy and I sat on benches padded with orange vinyl cushions. Mom and Dad occupied faux-Spanish style chairs with green felt upholstery. Despite the informal, Howard Johnson's-at-the-airport feel of the furnishings, there was a tension in the air that set in right around the time the frozen string beans started steaming. I had the feeling that my sister and I had forgotten to do something important, though I couldn't figure out what it was, or that judgment had been rendered on us and we'd been found guilty of … something — again, it was unclear what. Horseplay was prohibited. The TV and all sources of music or other frivolity were turned off, and singing was strictly forbidden. The only sound came from the aquarium pump. My father had a 100-gallon tank along the wall behind his chair. Sometimes the big plecostomus would attach itself by its mouth to the glass facing us, and I imagined it sucking all the oxygen out of the room."
Imagining what it must have been like to require oxygen to survive, not in outer space but in the living room with your family, sets up the story of the McCandless ancestors, including a guy who was killed by Wild Bill Hickok and the author's grandfather, who was an admiral in the U.S. Navy.
No pressure, Bruce.
It was fascinating to read about the 18 years that Bruce McCandless II worked for NASA before he finally had his first flight, which debuted the Manned Maneuvering Unit, a jet-fueled backpack that he and Ed Whitsett Jr. spent so many years developing. (That's the joystick-controlled machine he's wearing in that mind-bending poster that hung on millions of Americans' walls over the following decade.)
The author McCandless has the unenviable task of trying to put into words what that flight must have felt like. His dad flew 150 feet away from the shuttle Challenger, which would, of course, break into a million little pieces just a few years later.
When President Reagan called the shuttle to congratulate the astronauts that day in 1984, the command center set up a demonstration space walk to give the president a live view of McCandless through the shuttle window.
Bruce McCandless II, trains with Kathy Sullivan, right, in preparation to launch the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA)
The only problem was, there wasn't much fuel left. McCandless went out anyway, trying to stay within 10-15 feet of the spacecraft. He got into position and turned off the unit to preserve propellant. After the president said a few words and the video switched off, McCandless turned on the unit and "looked for the closest piece of the orbiter, pointed at it, put the hand controller in +X (and) got a sort of sighing noise as it accelerated in that direction." He ran out of fuel just as he grabbed onto a rail on the orbiter. Hand over hand, he brought himself back to the donning station.
It's that kind of suspense that made this book so thrilling to read.
There's space tension like when McCandless is operating as CAPCOM, the only person talking to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin while they are walking on the surface of the moon, and his commander wants him to break protocol and call them back early, even though there are no signs of distress.
The book is also so touching. I cried while reading about the declining health of Bernice, who survived so many astronaut wife struggles over the years and at the end of her life remained a loving partner and mother.
Bruce McCandless was a Navy pilot who was picked to join NASA in 1966. His first space flight wasn't until 1984. (NASA)
It's easy to forget that McCandless II had an entirely other memorable historic moment—launching the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990—and this one seems to have struck an even deeper chord with McCandless III.
The Hubble launch was McCandless' second and final flight. He was 52 and had worked at NASA for 24 years.
McCandless II spends the last chapters of the book making a compelling case that his dad's work to fix and update the Hubble are among the greatest achievements to science. He continued to work on Hubble for another two decades after retiring from NASA through his work at Lockheed Martin.
Bruce McCandless, left, and the flight crew that launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. He was 52 years old. (NASA)
He was the "nuts, bolts, screws, and wires guy," the auto mechanic rather than the scientist, who kept the telescope going 340 miles above Earth for more than twice its life expectancy. The Hubble has been cited in more than 18,000 scientific papers and has revealed countless secrets and unsolved mysteries from around the universe and beyond.
"The size, shape, and sheer spectral weirdness of the images boggle the imagination and make prophets and dreamers of us all," McCandless writes toward the end of "Wonders All Around. "Some of us pay therapists to tell us we're important and unique. Then we check in with Hubble so the satellite can inform us just how galactically marginal we all are. The truth is somewhere in the middle."
What a beautiful reminder.