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Texas Faces Dilemma: How To Accommodate COVID-19 Postive Voters

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Health officials in the U.S. warn that the spread of the coronavirus, which is already bad, may worsen this fall. And that's presented election officials with an urgent problem, how to accommodate voters who become infected in the days leading up to the November election. Texas Public Radio's Paul Flahive tells us that in that state, COVID-positive voters could be put in the position of having to choose between their right to vote and the public's health.

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: Texas fought expanding mail-in ballots all the way up to the Supreme Court. In Texas, unless you're over 65 or out-of-state, you have to have a disability to register for mail-in ballots. Being afraid of catching COVID doesn't qualify. And you have to register almost two weeks before the election to vote by mail.

KATYA EHRESMAN: OK, we are parking. I can see Linda. Putting on my mask right now.

FLAHIVE: That's how Katya Ehresman came to be in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant about 40 minutes before the polls for Texas' July 14 primary runoff closed.

EHRESMAN: I'm going to drop this off on the hood of her car while she gets out to fill out her ballot.

FLAHIVE: Ehresman works for the Texas Civil Rights Project, and she had an emergency absentee ballot for Linda Harrison. Harrison's a pediatric nurse who contracted COVID-19 after the state's mail-in application deadline. She had to jump through hoops to get this ballot, including finding a doctor to certify she was ill.

LINDA HARRISON: Thank you.

EHRESMAN: Of course.

FLAHIVE: Harrison is 62. And despite being exhausted and sick, she drove 30 minutes to fill out the ballot.

EHRESMAN: I think - yeah, I think you should seal it. Just make sure you sign the back of the white one.

FLAHIVE: When completed, Ehresman had about a half-hour to deliver the ballot, otherwise it wouldn't be counted.

HARRISON: It's ridiculous that we can't figure out a way for people that want to vote to get to vote. How many other people in Texas are in this situation? We cannot be the only ones.

FLAHIVE: COVID cases in Texas grew by 100,000 between the deadline to apply for mail-in ballots and election day. COVID cases have been growing in dozens of states since June. If it persists, thousands could be in the same predicament as Harrison.

KATHLEEN HALE: If we want voter confidence, we can't make them choose between exercising the vote and their health.

FLAHIVE: Kathleen Hale runs the elections administration program at Auburn University. She says there's so much uncertainty around COVID, and voters need to educate themselves on their state's rules now.

HALE: Registering to vote by mail, even if you don't anticipate wanting to vote by mail, is a smart choice as a voter because once you miss registration deadlines, those rules get trickier and harder to unpack.

FLAHIVE: Hale says many states have moved away from excuse-based absentee voting. Texas hasn't.

MIMI MARZIANI: Unfortunately, Texas has thrown up roadblock after roadblock for people like Linda. They have doubled down on the type of voter suppression that we've been seeing for years.

FLAHIVE: Mimi Marziani runs the Texas Civil Rights Project. It sued so that Harrison and her sick husband could vote without a doctor's note. They lost, which is why Katya Ehresman feverishly worked to cast Linda Harrison's ballot. She arrived at the county elections office with 11 minutes to spare.

EHRESMAN: Hi. Mail-in ballot. OK, thank you.

FLAHIVE: She carried the ballot in a T-shirt because she didn't have gloves.

EHRESMAN: This is an emergency ballot, so I don't have the ID or anything. It was someone with COVID that touched it, so I would be careful.

FLAHIVE: With just four minutes left, the clerks accepted it.

EHRESMAN: Perfect. Thank you so much. Have a good day.

FLAHIVE: Linda Harrison was only able to vote because she got a doctor's note. But her husband, Vernon Webb, wasn't able to get out of bed and couldn't cast a ballot.

HARRISON: The fact that I just kept at it and kept at it is the only reason I got to send my ballot in.

FLAHIVE: With the November election coming and no end in sight for COVID, thousands of people could be in their shoes.

For NPR News, I'm Paul Flahive in San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.