Comal County elections officials have been bombarded with questions in recent days about how things are supposed to work, where mail-in ballots are and why lines at the polls have been so long.
County Judge Sherman Krause met with officials on Friday and said every one involved is working hard to make sure that voters citizens have a chance to cast their ballot.
“There’s no way we would do anything to suppress the vote — we feel like it is one of the most important functions of county government, giving people the opportunity to have their say and cast their vote,” Krause said.
There have been record numbers of voters turning out across the country, and Comal County has been no exception.
“I think we prepared for the election and we have a lot of people who are working incredibly hard to put it on,” Krause said.
The judge said two specific items have driven the time in line.
“One is that you don’t have straight-ticket voting anymore, so it’s going to take people longer to cast their ballots,” he said. “The other is the coronavirus issue in which we’re working hard to make sure voting doesn’t contribute to any kind of spread.”
Texas is one of just five states that did not substantially expand mail-in voting this year, despite official health warnings against attending large gatherings to curb the spread of COVID-19. State elections officials have taken novel approaches to protect those among 17 million total voters who opt to cast votes in person.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott expanded the amount of time for early voting, but limited the number of places where voters can hand-deliver ballots to one per county. Democrats and voting rights groups sued and decried the action, but Republicans echoed President Trump’s belief that mail-in voting is ripe for fraud.
Absentee ballot applications
Applications for Ballot by Mail (ABBM), or absentee ballots, have drastically increased for the Nov. 3 election. Nationwide, mailed ballots are rejected at nearly twice the rate of in-person ballots. More than half a million were rejected in 23 states during the party primaries, most cast by voters of color, younger voters and first-time voters.
Comal County voters of both parties are concerned they may never see ballots after applying for them weeks, some of them months ago.
“It is October 15 and he still has not received his ballot,” one woman said of her son, a college student. “What was the remedy offered? (An elections official said) no additional ballot can be sent and he was told to call the post office … He tried but said he was on hold forever.”
Another voter trying to drop off his absentee ballot was blocked.
Elections Administrator Cynthia Jaqua said validating ABBM applications is a lengthy process.
“Once we receive the applications we make sure they are registered, make sure they are really over 65 and confirm they reside outside the county,” she said. “What many of those have been doing is not listing a Comal County address required to receive applications.”
Jaqua said of the county’s estimated 11,000 ABBM requests this year, 7,000 came in the last three months.
“We had received about 3,000 applications for ballot by mail before the July runoffs,” she said. “Since that time we’ve been bombarded.”
Rejecting applications is part of the process. Of this year’s total, Jaqua said perhaps 250 were rejected for various reasons — failed addresses and signatures were the top two.
“We gave them reasons why they were rejected and sent them another application,” she said.
There were dozens of voter registration requests rejected prior to the Oct. 5 deadline.
“We had a lot of people who were already registered in Comal County but just didn’t realize it. Others in nursing homes came from other places but when their children moved them here they never changed their addresses,” Jaqua said.
Jaqua said questionable voter registration and ABBM applications are reviewed by the county’s Early Voting Ballot Board, which determines whether it’s accepted or rejected. The board, comprised of Republican and Democratic elections judges and representatives from both parties, uses checklists and verification methods in making their decisions.
Jaqua said many ABBM requests were faxed or emailed, which require a supplemental hard copy as proof.
“If we don’t receive their originals, those will be rejected. I try to respond back keep them informed as much as I can,” she added. “Voters can always call my office to find out if they are registered or they can see if their ballots were counted on during the early voting period on our website.
“It is really easier to call us than the secretary of state, or you can look on our website to find out if your application was received.”
While the state’s deadline to request a mail-in ballot application is Oct. 23, the U.S. Postal Service is recommending voters get them in by Monday, Oct. 19 to ensure timely delivery.
“We have to get every ballot application that we’ve received by Oct. 23 out in the mail the next day,” Jaqua said. “If we receive an application now, it will be mailed within seven days. But that won’t apply after Oct. 23.”
Mailing, processing ballots
On Thursday, County Clerk Bobbie Koepp and Jaqua said the county had mailed 8,384 ballots to voters, with the remaining 2,000 going out by Saturday.
If counties receive ABBM applications more than 45 days before Election Day, they must send ballots out at least 30 days before the election. For ABBMs received after the 45-day mark, counties must mail ballots within seven days of the approved application.
Some counties don’t start mailing ballots until their entire ballots are certified. Comal County’s final ballots were finished days before it sent out military and overseas ballots on Sept. 19.
The U.S. Postal Service recommends that Texans ask for mail-in ballots no later than 15 days out from that due date. State law allows voters to request the ballots up until a week and a half before Election Day, so some may not receive ballots until it’s too late to mail them back.
Absentee voters can deliver completed ballots in person at county elections offices instead of mailing them in. But they can’t be dropped at voting locations, and Comal County’s elections office is an early voting site.
“The line was horrendous, as was expected,” said one voter who tried to leave his completed ballot there. “I asked two election officials to direct me to where I could drop off my ballot and both said I would have to stand in line with everyone else ... I was totally flabbergasted.”
Paxton clarifies poll laws
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued two reminders regarding polling sites.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order does exempt voting locations from mandatory face mask requirements preventing spread of COVID-19.
Paxton said in a letter Thursday: “The Order states plainly that the statewide ‘face-covering requirement does not apply to… any person who is voting, assisting a voter, serving as a poll watcher, or actively administering an election.’“
Paxton’s letter was sent to election officials after he said his office received “reports that certain poll watchers, election clerks, and other individuals administering elections are being barred from executing their duties on account of not wearing a mask or face-covering. This is wrong.”
He went on to say that barring poll workers from these sites because of not wearing face masks is “unlawful.”
The second addressed curbside services offered to the disabled. He said a good number of voters have requested curbside voting services, in which poll workers bring machines outside polling location parking lots and enable disabled voters to cast ballots.
Paxton reminded although the state expanded the use of curbside voting for this election, the service is an option afforded those meeting a certain, narrow set of criteria. It is not an option for able-bodied voters seeking to vote from the comfort of their cars.
Jaqua said Comal County poll workers have done well in assessing who meets that criteria, who as Paxton said must “physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.”
Paxton advised that fear of COVID-19 does not render a voter physically unable to cast ballots inside polling places without assistance, and that elections officials should not advise voters that such fear qualifies them to cast curbside ballots.
Comal, Guadalupe voting totals
Unofficial totals reported by elections officials and the Texas Secretary of State’s website as of Thursday indicated 19,255 of 116,067 registered Comal County voters cast ballots at seven sites or mailed them in for a turnout of 16.52%, with 18,306 of 111,187 Guadalupe County voters casting in person and mailed ballots for a 16.46% turnout.
Jaqua said Comal County’s top polling sites continue to be the downtown elections office, Mammen Family Library in Bulverde and St. Francis by the Lake Episcopal Church in Canyon Lake.
These Comal County early polling locations will be open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday; 1-6 p.m. Sunday; 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19 through Saturday, Oct. 24; 1 p.m.-6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25; 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 26 through Friday, Oct. 30:
• Comal County Elections Center, 396 N. Seguin Ave., New Braunfels
• Mammen Family Public Library, 131 Bulverde Crossing, Bulverde
• Comal County Goodwin Annex, 1297 Church Hill Dr., New Braunfels
• CRRC of Canyon Lake, 1917 Farm-to-Market Road 2673, Sattler
• Comal County Bulverde Annex, 30470 Cougar Bend, Bulverde
• St. Francis by the Lake Episcopal Church, Large Room, 121 Spring Mountain Drive, Canyon Lake
• Garden Ridge Community Center, 9500 Municipal Parkway, (closes at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 28)
These Guadalupe County early polling sites will be open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday; 1-6 p.m. Sunday; 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19 through Saturday, Oct. 24; 1 p.m.-6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25; 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 26 through Friday, Oct. 30:
• Seguin Elections Office, 215 S. Milam St., Seguin
• Cibolo Fire Station No. 2, 3864 Cibolo Valley Dr., Cibolo
• Central Texas Technology Center, Room 118, 2189 FM 758, New Braunfels
• Grace Church, 3240 Farm-to-Market Road 725, New Braunfels
• New Berlin City Hall, 9180 FM 775, New Berlin
• Schertz Elections Office Annex, 1101 Elbel Road, Schertz
• Former Schertz Elections Office, 1101 Elbel Road, Schertz
• Seguin ISD administration Building, 1221 E. Kingsbury St., Seguin
• Selma City Hall, 9375 Corporate Drive, Selma