Voting during Covid: A Q&A with election administrator Kathy Van Wolfe

McLennan County, Texas, elections administrator Kathy Van Wolfe kindly sat down for a Q&A with the Amberley Collaborative to clear up questions about voting during the Covid pandemic—especially for voters who have a disability that makes voting in person less safe this year.

Thank you, Kathy! We appreciate your commitment to our community, especially in such challenging times.

Amberley Collaborative: I understand that people who are disabled can request a mail-in ballot. Some people are limiting their trips away from home during Covid-19 because they are immunocompromised or have other risk factors, but wouldn’t consider themselves disabled. Can these people request a mail-in ballot?

Kathy Van Wolfe: The laws haven’t changed as far is who is eligible to apply for a mail-in ballot. A qualifying disability right now is a physical disability. On the application for a mail-in ballot we don’t ask for any kind of proof of disability or a doctor’s note. It’s somewhat up to interpretation because we don’t ask for documentation. If for some reason a county had a tremendous increase of requests on the basis of disability, I would think the state would look into it. That’s just my opinion.

AC: What about a healthy person who has been isolating because they share a home with someone who is elderly or immunocompromised? Can that healthy person request a mail-in ballot?

KVW: No, that person is not eligible to vote by mail. For people in that situation what we do have to offer is curbside voting so they won’t have to go into a polling place.

AC: How does curbside voting work?

KVW: You can vote curbside in one of two ways. You can send someone in to alert an election judge that you’re in the car, or you can call the election office at 254-757-5043, and we will contact the election judge and tell them to come out and look for your car, according to your description. Then an election judge will bring a voting machine out to you. You’ll still need to be a registered voter and have ID with you according to the same rules as if you were voting inside.

AC: I was looking at the application for a mail-in ballot, and I was confused about the methods for sending in the application. The application provides a fax number and an email address for sending in the application, but it also says that the physical application must be received by mail within four days of the faxed or emailed version. Is there any advantage, then, to faxing or emailing the application?

KVW: Yes, you do need to send the physical application by regular mail. The advantage to faxing or emailing an application as well is to get it in by the deadline if you’re worried about the mail getting there in time. The four-day limit applies to a mailed application that arrives past the application deadline.

AC: When must an application for a mail-in ballot for the November 3 election be received by your office? Do you recommend requesting the ballot earlier in case of mail delays?

KVW: The application must be received at the elections office—not just postmarked—by October 23. It is important to allow plenty of time for the application to get to us.

AC: How many postage stamps does a completed ballot require?

KVW: Only one standard 55-cent or forever stamp is required to mail a completed ballot.

AC: Can a voter who is worried about mail delivery times drop off their ballot at the elections office rather than mailing it in?

KVW: You can come into our Waco office at 214 N. 4th St, Suite 300, to drop it off. You cannot deliver anyone else’s ballot, only your own, and you will need to have your ID to verify that it’s your own ballot. If you need to stay in your car, you can send someone in to let an election worker know you’re there, or you can call us 254-757-5043, and an election worker will come out to your car so you can present your ID and hand the worker your ballot.

AC: How do election officials ensure that mail-in ballots are valid?

KVW: The application for a mail-in ballot has your signature on it, then when you you vote your ballot, you sign the ballot envelope. We have a ballot board with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans who verify signatures. If there’s a question about the validity of the application or ballot, the ballot board will check against the signature on the voter registration. Another step is required if your application requests that the ballot be sent somewhere other than the address you had when you registered to vote. In that case the election office will send a statement-of-residence card with your ballot, and you must fill out that card and return it with your ballot.

AC: What common errors can result in mail-in ballots being invalidated?

KVW: If you have the application sent to an address that is different from the one from which you registered, and you don’t fill out the statement-of-residence card and return it with your ballot, your vote will not be counted. If a family member or someone else filled out your application to vote by mail, and then you sign your ballot yourself, the signatures won’t match, and your ballot will be invalidated. Some voters do need assistance to fill out the application or to cast their ballot; in that case the assistant must fill out the proper sections on the application and on the return envelope for the ballot.

AC: How is recruitment of poll workers going this year? Do you anticipate a shortage? How might this affect wait times at the polls in the general election?

KVW: The July primary was a very good test of what’s to come. We had many workers calling in afraid to work the polls. Some workers called the day before to say they couldn’t come, or they just didn’t show up. We need about 300 people to work the election. We are going to try to recruit student workers, who can be as young as 16. Young workers have more stamina, may be more able to lift equipment, and are more accustomed to troubleshooting technology. Seniors are more likely to be available for several weeks of early voting, but they’re also the most likely not to be willing serve this year.

AC: How can we help ensure that everyone can vote in the November election? For example, can we give mail-in ballot applications along with envelopes and stamps to people who may need them? Are there other ways we can help?

KVW: Volunteer to work the polls. Vote early to reduce demand on election day. Vote by mail if you are eligible to do so. Be patient, especially if you have to vote on election day. It’s a long ballot this year, and this is our first election without straight-ticket voting, so it will take longer for people to fill out their ballots. And yes, you can print applications and give them to people, along with stamps and envelopes so they can mail them. Just be careful to follow the instructions for assisting someone with their application.

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