EDITORIAL: Safe voting: Counties should consider adding early polling sites

Texas has some unfinished business with regard to our spring elections, and county officials can help ease possible crowding — and lingering fears that voting might expose people to the coronavirus — by expanding early voting options.

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted voting during one of the busiest election years. Dozens of states are just beginning to hold presidential primaries that were postponed while stay-home orders were in effect. Texas held its primaries, but the pandemic hit before runoff elections could be held. With the state reopening, those runoffs have been scheduled for July 14, and people who haven’t registered to vote have until Monday, June 15, to do so.

The coronavirus risk still exists, and several Texas counties, including Cameron, had planned to help people vote by allowing more people to vote by mail.

However, a federal appeals court panel has sided with the Republican Party, which had sued to block that expansion.

The plan was to accommodate people who worry about the very real risk of catching the coronavirus at public gatherings, including voting locations. Texas allows voting by mail based on illness, age and planned absence on Election Day; Cameron County Elections Administrator Remi Garza and others said they would accept fear of contracting COVID-19 as a valid medical reason to vote by mail.

Lawsuits and countersuits followed, and the Texas Supreme Court rejected the idea that healthy people who fear getting sick could use medical sanction to vote by mail. A panel of judges from the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court ruled that the runoff elections are too close to be changing the rules now. thus, only people who actually have COVID-19 or another illness can vote by mail; lack of immunity to the virus, which applies to everyone, can’t be cited as a disability.

Gov. Greg Abbott, however, has lengthened the early voting period in order to help lines that might form during an earlier voting period. Early voting begins June 29. The extra time helps enable voters who encounter lines to alter their plans and return at another time when no line exists.

Those voters might decide instead to try another polling site, since early voting places should have ballots for all precincts.

County officials could make that option easier to take if they increase the number of early voting sites, and post the locations throughout the county, including the voting sites. Voters then could check the list, and consider trying a less crowded location.

Granted, the July runoffs feature just a few races and turnout traditionally is lighter than the general elections. But primary voting was heavy in Texas, as in the rest of the country, and experts expect voting in the November general election to shatter records for the number of votes cast. The primaries offer election officials a chance to test accommodations for the virus, such as increasing polling sites, moving them to more open venues or devising methods to maintain safe distances among voters and precinct workers.

It’s safe to assume that the legislature will address these kinds of issues when they convene in January. Until then, officials should continue to seek ways to enable everyone who wishes to vote to do so, in the most safe and efficient ways possible.