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Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Governor Abbott, let Texas veterans vote by mail so they can avoid coronavirus risk

September 25, 2020

Gov. Greg Abbott’s unjust opposition to universal mail-in ballots means that two-thirds of the 1.5 million Texas veterans younger than 65 face a difficult dilemma. Health issues make them more likely to die if they contract the coronavirus. What do they do?

If only Abbott would take the advice of former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, who urged his fellow Republicans to accept expanded mail-in voting. Straus understands our sacred right to vote.

Texans, sadly, are no strangers to voting suppression. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, to uphold our state’s effort to draw congressional districts in ways that diluted minority votes. Today, despite a highly communicable virus that threatens the lives of Texans forced to vote in person, our governor refuses to use his power to suspend election laws to allow more voting by mail.

Federal courts so far are again rejecting Texans’ pleas to ensure that every voter can vote and that every vote will count.

Our Constitution’s 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18. Its words are relevant to Texas’ voting laws: “The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”

Texas law allows voters 65 and older to vote early by mail. Denying younger Texans the same benefit “abridges” their right to vote.

Recently, a split 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision rejected that argument. Unless the Supreme Court reverses the decision, Texans wanting to vote but fearing polling places exposed to the virus have three choices: voting in person, not voting and getting a mail-in ballot by claiming a “disability.” To vote, they must choose either dishonesty or exposure to infection.

Abbott’s hypocrisy mirrors President Donald Trump’s: both vote by mail but oppose that option for others. Trump cynically distinguishes “good” voting by mail, in which voters must apply for a ballot, from “bad” voting by mail, in which the state mails ballots to all registered voters.

By this measure, Texas has a “good” process – voters must apply for mail-in ballots. Texans deserve for the governor to end his hypocrisy and allow everyone to apply.

The Texas Supreme Court also recently rejected efforts to allow all Texans younger than 65 to vote by mail. It flagged that Texans may decide whether they have a “disability” that qualifies them to vote by mail, but it warned that “lack of immunity” to the virus is not a disability.

This means each Texas voter can decide whether he or she is disabled, but claiming disability only over concern about contracting COVID-19 would either violate Texas voting laws or be a felony over lying on the application.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reports that 16 million Texans suffer one chronic disease, and 6 million of those suffer two or more. Many are younger than 65 but are at “increased risk” for “getting very sick from COVID-19.” They are more vulnerable to the virus than healthy Texans older than 65. What do they do?

The governor should at least make clear that any Texan – veteran or not – with an underlying health condition vulnerable to COVID-19 can apply to vote by mail. Many, though, are unaware of their vulnerability; should they “falsely” claim a disability?

Governor Abbott, as military veterans, we hope you see the problem here. COVID-19 is Russian roulette: no one knows how the virus will affect them. By not opening vote by mail to all Texans, you force us each to pull the trigger and hope the chamber is empty.

Texas veterans who have borne arms to defend our nation now face exposure to dying at home, killed by a merciless, invisible enemy. The predicament invites a stark question: Having sworn to defend their lives and the right to vote that they now seek to exercise safely, is it really too much to ask our governor to exercise his authority to protect these veterans?