Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's mail ballot applications cause a stir

Posted February 9, 2018 2:33 p.m. EST

AUSTIN, Texas -- Gov. Greg Abbott is just trying to help some older folks vote. Oh sure, he hopes they'll vote for him and that's why his campaign staff picked out these particular older folks. But the overall goal of this effort can be couched as a helpful effort to help people vote. Maybe.

I recently told you about it. Now I can tell you about how Abbott's effort has caused woes for some local county election officials.

Abbott sent mail ballot applications to selected Texans over 65, ones we can be sure were selected because his campaign has reason to believe they might vote for him. Nothing wrong with that. In turn, voters who got the applications -- and a robocall from Abbott about the applications -- could fill them out and send them to their local county election official and wait for a mail ballot to show up in their mail box.

OK. Everything was good to this point. Then folks started sending in the applications.

That's when problems began for some election officials, as first noticed by the San Antonio Express-News' Peggy Fikac, who's always good at noticing things that need to be noticed. Thank you, journalism.

The mail ballot applications have a section in which voters designate whether they want a ballot for the Democratic primary or the Republican primary. But lots of folks sent the form in without designating a primary. That's a problem.

The Express-News reported that Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen has received hundreds of the Abbott-related mail ballot applications that didn't specify whether the request was for a Democratic or GOP primary ballot. That meant rejecting the application and asking the applicant to designate a primary. And that meant work and time and money.

Michael Winn, Travis County director of elections, said his office received about 700 of the Abbott-generated mail ballot applications that came in without designating a primary. But he said it's not uncommon and said it's a "normal process we go through." His office is contacting those voters and asking them to designate a primary.

It also wouldn't have been uncommon for the Abbott campaign to have pre-checked the GOP primary box.

In fact, campaign spokesman John Wittman says the GOP box was checked on some of the applications. On others -- the ones now causing some problems -- no box was checked.

Wittman says this was a strategy targeting voters who, though not necessarily GOP primary voters, might be open to voting for Republican Abbott in November.

Let's also note that the Abbott campaign helpfully filled out the name and address sections and checked the box designating it as an "annual application." We'll get back to why that last part matters.

The Texas Democratic Party is eager to make the Abbott effort look like a big ol', expensive mess: "This type of screw-up means thousands of seniors' applications will be rejected," the party said in a statement, "and these voters will have to reapply to vote in the primary and this will cost thousands of dollars statewide for county election officials."

Calm down, said the Abbott campaign, eager to make it look like the Democrats aren't interested in helping older folks vote by mail.

"Given their history of complaints, you'd think Democrats would be in favor of getting more voters to the polls," Wittman said. "And given their current crop of candidates, they're going to need all the help they can get."

He couldn't resist that last shot. Political pros think and talk that way. They love thinking and talking that way.

Wittman said the mail ballot effort "is a result of a test Texans for Greg Abbott did in 2014. This election, we have expanded it 10-fold."

Texans age 65 or older "have a right to vote by mail in both the primary and general elections, and that is who we are targeting with this drive," Wittman said.

This effort can pump up November turnout because the Abbott campaign pre-checked the "annual application" box, which means voters who sent in an application without designating a primary -- and who don't correct that -- won't get a mail ballot for the primaries but will get mail ballots for all other elections this year, including the November general election. It also means they'll have some explaining to do if they opt to show up to vote in person at any election for which they were sent a mail ballot.

"Now is the perfect time to drive up turnout for both elections," Wittman said. "We will continue to target these voters throughout the election to ensure the greatest margin of victory for Governor Abbott."

He won by 20 points in 2014. Sounds like he's going to be disappointed with anything less than unanimous this year.

Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. Email: kherman(at)statesman.com.

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