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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Both Prop A advocates Save Austin Now and opponents political action committee Equity PAC raised over $1 million in funding between Sept. 24 and Oct. 23 ahead of Austin's Nov. 2 election, but their efforts haven't yet been reflected in the polls.
Prop A is the most contentious ballot item this election, if passed the measure would require a minimum police staffing of just over two officers per 1,000 residents. Also on the ballot is a parkland-focused Prop B; and eight state constitutional amendments. Despite constant coverage by city and community leaders and near record-breaking funds from both sides of the Prop A debacle, under 7% of voters have gone to the polls with less than a week left of early voting.
Save Austin Now, a self-proclaimed bipartisan group that saw its first major victory when it passed an ordinance to reinstate the homeless camping ban in May, raised $1,013,896.86 in the one-month period, bringing their grand total to around $1.7 million according to Jack Craver's Austin Politics Newsletter. It's the second time the political action committee has raised over $1 million—SAN nearly broke the record for money raised in a city election after racking up $1.9 million for the camping ban in May.
According to SAN co-founder Matt Mackowiak, chairman of the Travis County GOP, most funding came from private businesses and influential community members, including:
- Private equity investor Philip Canfield, who gave two donations totaling $125,000
- The cryptically-named America 2076— $100,000
- Venture capitalist firm Gigafund's managing directors Luke Nosek and Stephen Oskoui contributed $50,000 apiece
- Venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale, real estate developer Dick Anderson and car dealer Roger Beasley—$50,000 each
- Buc-ee's owner Donald Wasek, mystery donor "L., D.K", and Julia Wilkinson of charitable group Still Water Foundation each gave $25,000
- George Soros group Open Society Policy Center—$500,000
- Washington, D.C.-based liberal social justice charity Fairness Project—$200,000
- Left-wing "dark money" fund Sixteen Thirty—$100,000
- Oklahoma oil mogul Charles Schusterman's Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies—$100,000
- Several unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Texas Federation of Teachers, Southwest Laborer's District Council, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, ACLU of Texas and Austin labor union branch Austin AFL-CIO also contributed to the group.
Those big bucks have been put to use, with both groups pumping out commercials, billboards, ads and social media efforts to sway voters to either side. According to Craver, SAN has spent all but $2,777 as of Oct. 23, gaining the backing of Austin City Council Member Mackenzie Kelly and former Austin mayors Lee Leffingwell, Lee Cooke and Ron Mullen in the process. Those who endorse the campaign cite a need for better policing amid a nationwide uptick in violence, especially as Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon announced that APD would no longer respond to "non-emergency" calls due to an understaffed force.
Some of their advertising has been called out as misleading, including misleading tweets about the possible support of Austinite Matthew McConaughey and insinuating that Austin Democrats are voting for the bill in text ads.
— Save Austin Now | Prop A For A Safe Austin (@SaveAustinNow) October 21, 2021
The Equity PAC still had $455,000 remaining as of Oct. 23 as they relied more on supporters Mayor Steve Adler, Council member Greg Casar, 80 community organizations and even some comments from Chacon, who says the measure is "based on older methodologies," to get the word out.
Most who oppose the bill say that Prop A, which could cost between $271.5 and nearly $600 million over five years according to estimates reported by city staff, would take away funds from other essential city departments. But they're still doing plenty of advertising outreach themselves—and Prop A supporters dispute that multi-million dollar price tag and say city council members are ignoring the increase in crime after cutting police funds last year amid Black Lives Matter protests.
Despite the hot topic, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir told CBS Austin the city may fall behind their already-low goal of 18%-19% of eligible voters reaching the polls.
"It's a slow, low turnout. We're not seeing very good numbers at all," DeBeauvoir said.
Early voting ends Friday, while Election Day comes Tuesday, Nov. 2. For a guide to voting on the election, click here.
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As Halloween makes us second guess if that cold spot was a ghost or simply the cool front, keep your guard up because there are supposed haunted grounds in the city.
Austin is largely free of widespread hauntings but that doesn't mean it doesn't have its fair share of phantoms if you know where to look. Here are some of Austin's most haunted burial grounds.
Originally called the city cemetery, Oakwood Cemetery is Austin's oldest burial ground and has been standing since the 1850s. Though record-keeping isn't as robust from its early days, with over 40 acres of land and more than 25,000 people buried, Oakwood Cemetery is said to be the permanent home to some well-known Texans: U.S. Marshall and Texas Ranger John Barclay Armstrong who passed in 1913, Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson who passed on in 1883, radio personality John Henry Faulk who was buried in 1990.
Oakwood Cemetery is also known for its fair share of hauntings—note that not all who lie there are resting in marked graves and some of the early marked graves, like 1897's "Little Brother" gravestone, are haunting in and of themselves.
So, why should you stay away from Oakwood Cemetery at night? You might run into the ghost of the first of the Servant Girl Annihilator's victims, 17-year-old Eula Phillips, who was murdered by her then-husband with an axe. Philips is said to wander the grounds lamenting her violent death with tears. Dickinson, who died at the age of 68, may also appear to you and is said to be the most visual of specters that roam the grounds.
Oakwood Cemetery is known for graverobbing—rumor has it that university professors used to steal bodies from unmarked graves to use as cadavers for their students—so you might encounter the souls who are still roaming the cemetery, looking for their bodies.
Shoal Creek Indian Massacre Site
The historical marker is located at 24th Street at Shoal Creek. (austinghosts.com)
Shoal Creek, like nearly all of the United States, can be traced back thousands of years to 9,000 B.C. with Native American arrowheads. Settlers would camp along the mouth of the creek, including famous residents like the second president of the Republic of Texas Mirabeau Lamar, where it is said they engaged in a turf war with the Native Americans who resided right nearby. Those who weren't killed by Comanche warriors were killed by cholera and were buried along the creek. It is said that a mass grave, filled with victims of yellow fever, cholera and unexplained violence, lies beneath the creek.
Of the hauntings most commonly seen at Shoal Creek, watch out for cold spots in the middle of summer, vanishing orbs of light called "Marfa Lights," vanishing apparitions, unexplainable noises at night, sudden sickness and nightmares after visiting.
The Austin State Hospital
The Austin State Hospital is still operating. (Texas Historical Commission National Register Collection and the Portal to Texas History)
When the Austin State Hospital took in its first patients in 1861, it was meant to be a beacon of hope for the mentally ill to recover from the stressors of everyday life. On any given day, the hospital would treat and allegedly sometimes experiment on anywhere from 200-4,000 patients and after an unfortunate death, bodies that were not claimed were buried in the cemetery out back behind the hospital. When the cemetery inevitably filled up, bodies were exhumed and transferred to a burial ground just over two miles away. Though they say all the bodies were transferred, legend tells that some have been left on the still-operating hospital's grounds just six feet below.
The Austin State School and State School Farm Colony
The Austin State School is now closed, many of its 68 buildings abandoned. (Andreanna Moya Photography/CC)
These two gender-segregated facilities were originally intended for mentally-troubled juvenile offenders, many of whom never left the grounds. On the school's 436 acres, 1,800 students were housed across 68 buildings and the campus also held farmland, a swimming pool and a cemetery. Children who were not claimed were buried on-site, where about 3,000 students are buried. The school was sued in the 1960s after changing its name to the Travis State School for inadequate living conditions and closed in the late 90s. Many buildings have been taken over by charter schools but some remain empty to this day.
Tucker Cemetery's unique sight is its dozens of hand-written tombstones. (kissingtoast/CC)
Just outside the Barton Creek Greenbelt, Tucker Cemetery doesn't have many stories of haunts to its name other than anecdotes of car locks popping open on their own. However, what makes this cemetery freaky is its collection of tiny, hand-scrawled tombstones.
Keep Austin spoOoOoOoky!
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Coming off of the heels of the biggest Formula 1 race to date, Circuit of the Americas now has plans to create luxury "car condos" for racecar enthusiasts right by the track.
Located on the racetrack's storied "Turn 11," COTA will create around 178 car condos on a 22-acre plot in a partnership with real estate firm Lincoln Property Company. Presale reservations for the units began Wednesday, and the project hopes to break ground by late spring of 2022.
The 340,000 square foot space will include a 7,000-square foot amenity center with a pool, a clubhouse, a conference center, outdoor barbecue grills and more.
The luxurious car condos will be located alongside COTA's famed Turn 11. (Lincoln Property Company)
Customers can trick out their space, which can range from 1,300 square feet to 6,000+, however they'd like. In other projects, Lincoln Property's JR Gideon has seen car condo owners add in mechanic shops, basketball hoops, bars, music studios and more.
"They're really for storing luxury cars just as much as hosting," Gideon said. "You can do pretty much anything in there besides live."
Think of the ultimate man cave, though that word's not quite appropriate—according to Gideon, some female clients have also booked reservations for the project.
"I think predominately, our demographic is going to be men, yes, but we've already had a few ladies reserve units, which is awesome," Gideon said.
Along with having a trackside space, Gideon said that owning a condo has other perks, including 20% off COTA events. Most importantly, however, these car enthusiasts want to see their cars on the track, something the team is already planning for.
"If you're going to have your nice cars at the track, you want to know if you're going to be able to get them on there," Gideon said. "Right now I'm planning for two full track weekends for owners to be able to get their cars out on the track."
Marketing for the project has just begun, and almost every client so far has been from Texas and/or the Austin area. But Gideon and team expect plenty of interest from national customers as well as some international buyers as the only F1 racetrack in the States with trackside car condos.
There could be a hitch in the plan, however. COTA's 10-year contract for F1 expired last weekend, and no new deal has been finalized yet. But COTA chair Bobby Epstein feels confident in renewing a contract, especially after the sports' biggest weekend to date. Gideon and Lincoln's Seth Johnston aren't involved in contract talks but say that plenty of attractions exist at COTA outside of the U.S. Grand Prix.
And with newfound American interest in F1—Gideon, like many others, partially credits Netflix's "Drive To Survive" series—the crew is confident that there will be more projects like this to come in the future.
"With (Drive To Survive) coming out in the last couple of years and so many people watching the past race, I think there's certainly a lot of momentum around Circuit of the Americas and this project as well as other future developments at COTA," Gideon said.
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