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Vote and Die

I voted in Texas during the pandemic and still feel like shit.

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My governor, Greg Abbott, has spent the last two weeks wringing his hands into a dust over Texas’ dire COVID numbers and nicely asking Texans to wear masks and stand apart from each other while visiting businesses he reopened too early. Things are bad here.

But there’s one exception to Abbott’s worry: voting. There are primary elections scheduled for July 14, and, despite everything melting down around us, people are still having to vote in person. My state’s official policy is “vote and die.”

Here’s where I come in. Texas allows early voting through July 10, and I figured since I wasn’t working yesterday, I might as well use my free time to vote early. I don’t know what the end of next week will look like, and I don’t want to find out. I surely don’t want to wait to vote on Election Day, because jesus christ just the thought of waiting in line with more than 10 other people freaks me out.

Not that I wasn’t freaked out anyway. I grimace thinking about the last time I went out to vote, back in late February for the March primary election. This was also during the pandemic, and no one was wearing a mask, because we were told we didn’t need masks, but I think I had gloves on? Maybe? There were so many people, poll workers and voters, crammed into the room the size of a former Starbucks grocery store kiosk with a seating area. Well, maybe not crammed, but tight by pandemic social distancing standards.

I couldn’t imagine my county would operate the primary runoff election the same way, but it didn’t matter whether they did. I knew I had to go vote in person because I had no other choice. (Note: this is not a comment on the usefulness of electoral politics, which is another blog for another day!!!!)

In May, a federal judge ruled that Texas needed to let all voters afraid of getting COVID vote by mail. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the ruling, expressing unfounded concerns of voter fraud. Texas Democrats had asked the Supreme Court to allow the order expanding absentee voting to stand as the case worked its way through the courts, but the court denied the request on Friday.

So, the only people who could request mail-in ballots for this election are whoever qualified before: people at least 65 years old, people with disabilities, people registered in Texas who are out of their county, and people in jail who can vote.

And even if the Supreme Court allowed the ruling, I wonder if counties would have been able to meet the demand. Back in April, bulk printing and packaging companies with the National Association of Presort Mailers said they were already at capacity for printing and mailing November ballots for states with established absentee mail-in voting programs. From Talking Points Memo:

If more states and localities sought to expand their mail-in voting operations, those vendors — who typically work with the western states that already conduct massive absentee voting operations — would need to purchase more equipment. But obtaining that equipment takes several months, National Association of Presort Mailers president Richard Gebbie told TPM after the call, and vendors wouldn’t make that seven-figure investment without the contracts to justify it.

The conundrum, Gebbie fretted to TPM, is that if election officials wait even more than a few weeks to put in those orders, it would be too late for those vendors to scale up their own capacity.

A few weeks notice may not have cut it anyway. But the timeframe is still indicative of how little Texas values voting access in the first place — that we had but months to figure out how to vote during a pandemic, and that this election was allowed to continue in-person, regardless of who might get sick or die as a result. Voting access is not a priority in Texas, and Republicans in charge know it’s not in their best interest to help all Texans vote. This is what we’re used to, but in a pandemic this disregard feels all the more disgusting.

So knowing that I had no choice, I went about my day yesterday, intending to vote and very freaked out about it. I checked out the Williamson County elections website before I left the house, where I was pleasantly surprised to watch this very fun video about all the ways the election department was keeping voters safe.

They’d have partitions between voters and poll workers, and little plastic devices that disinfect pens and pencils. “IF POSSIBLE, PLEASE USE YOUR OWN PEN AND UNSHARPENED PENCIL TO CHECK-IN AND MARK YOUR BALLOT,” one of the graphics read. I went ahead and brought my own, just to be safe.

Wednesday also happened to be the first day that the city of Round Rock, where I live, was requiring people to wear masks in public indoor spaces. The measure came after an emergency city council vote, but at least it happened, and at least it would be in effect during the rest of the July election. (Not that this applies to all voting locations in Williamson County, I imagine — the graphics in the county’s voting video say face coverings are “recommended.”)

Once I got to the grocery store where the early voting in my area was taking place, I sat in the parking lot for another 30 minutes, partially because I was still freaked out, but mostly because I saw a sign for a city council candidate in the parking lot and wanted to do a “quick” google about them. (It turns out their election isn’t till November.) Inside, the setup was similar to the way it was in March, but with four voting stations instead of seven or eight.

They had the writing utensil-sanitizing devices sitting on the voting stations themselves, holding pencils at the ready, but not at the check-in, where a random pen sat on the poll worker table. I was grateful I had brought my own pencil and pen. And despite the video alleging they’d have hand sanitizer stations, I saw one bottle of sanitizer on the poll worker table — not a hand pump but a pour bottle. I, a reasonably-over prepared freak, as we have already established, came wearing gloves.

But it wasn’t a bad process, and I felt relatively safe, at least in the polling area. Everyone in line with me and volunteering was wearing a face shield or mask, but a few times people got Too Close. Which, I know, is supposed to be fine when you’re wearing a mask, but my awareness of someone’s proximity was heightened nonetheless. An older man pre-peeled an “early voting” sticker from the sheet and let me lift it off the sheet myself. I wiped it down with disinfectant when I got back to my car anyway.

I suppose my biggest concern was with the grocery store itself. A sign in the vestibule advertised that masks were now mandatory, and the store’s aisles had stickers on the floor indicating which ways traffic flows (which I, a “6 FEET APART” asshole, completely missed as I breezed through the aisles). But I walked by one older man who wasn’t wearing a mask, and then saw two separate women walking into the store without one as I left.

Voting, during a pandemic, when Texas COVID cases are spiking like a motherfucker, was a relatively easy process, but it stressed the shit out of me. It’s even wilder that I voted when I wasn’t so excited for most of the candidates running.

There was one candidate who I felt was progressive enough to get excited about — Donna Imam, who’s running for Rep. John Carter’s seat — but I have doubts that Royce West or M.J. Hegar will defeat Sen. John Cornyn. I feel slightly more hope for Imam and the other Democratic candidate running for my House district, Christine Eady Mann, and their ability to defeat Carter, but only until I remind myself that I live in a county where residents pride themselves on being “not Austin,” and that Hegar couldn’t even beat Carter in 2018 with the benefit of a viral campaign video and the momentum of Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign (yes, I’m also a “BETO RUN FOR SENATE AGAIN” asshole, we exist!!).

And then there’s regular voter suppression. And then pandemic voter suppression, though I’m not sure there’s really anything to discern about the pandemic’s effect on voter turnout. In the 2016 runoffs, a mostly Republican election, 3.02% of registered voters participated in total. The 2018 runoffs, with two Republican and two Democratic races, saw 6.34% of registered voters turn out. So far in this runoff of three Democratic races, 2.56% have participated, just in the first three days of early voting. I don’t know whether to feel surprised or concerned for what might come from high voter turnout.

Really, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so lost and devoid of hope while participating in an election before. Because I’m feeling mostly uninspired by the candidates running. Because we’re four months away from a general election and already grossly underprepared to keep Texans safe while voting. Because Abbott and local Death Cult leader Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick keep being fucking jackasses while our hospitals overflow.

I’m fucking pissed, and voting isn’t making me feel any better. I completely understand the merits and privilege of voting in local elections (again, a blog for another day!!!!), and that’s why I did it. But I did it feeling like it wouldn’t bring about the change that Texans want and need. From what I can tell, I have little faith that this feeling will shrink or change come November, and I imagine, and worry, that I’m not alone.

Photo and remix by Samantha Grasso