Analysis: Running government like a business — except for elections

click to enlarge A voter drops off her ballot at the Bexar County Elections Office. - SANFORD NOWLIN
Sanford Nowlin
A voter drops off her ballot at the Bexar County Elections Office.
Texas is operating absentee voting drop-off sites on the theory that McDonald’s would sell just as many burgers and fries if it had only one store in Harris County.

That kind of thinking pervades the state’s 2020 election machinery. Gov. Greg Abbott, who initially took some middle-ground positions on voting practices this year, has buckled to protests from fellow Republicans who have turned a few anecdotal cases of voter fraud into a vivid mythology of a democracy that runs just ahead of the hounds of corruption.

Abbott didn’t go along with efforts to expand voting by mail in the state, after Democrats raised the possibility that voting in person during a pandemic could be a public health threat. And the courts took the same side, turning back arguments that the coronavirus threat should allow anyone on the voter rolls to avail themselves of checking the box claiming a disability that would make voting dangerous. Judges also turned back a challenge to the age exemption that allows Texans who are 65 years old or older to vote absentee if they’d like.

But the governor did extend early voting, adding six days to that period to give people a chance to spread out a bit, or to have more time choices, if they wanted to vote in person before Election Day. It didn’t work out that way on the first day of voting, but that’s to be expected: Voters were revved up and busting to vote at the earliest opportunity.

The governor’s extended voting period was challenged in court — not by Democrats, but by some of his fellow Republicans. One of their arguments was that Abbott was dishing out pandemic orders on voting that he doesn’t have the legal power to dish. Another was that the period of voting already on the books was plenty, and that voters didn’t need the help anyhow.

When talking about voting by mail or extending early voting, some folks like to use the grocery store analogy for voting in person. You’ve heard it: “If you’re comfortable going to the grocery store, you should be comfortable voting in person.”

It’s not completely wrong, especially if you recall how many times you’ve stood in line for three to five hours to get your milk and potatoes. If state law made voting as easy as Texas grocers have made filling the pantry, this wouldn’t be a point of contention this year. You’d be able to vote and fill your pantry without missing a single Zoom meeting.

Abbott flipped hard when it came to letting Texans drop off their absentee ballots. The state allows those who can legally vote by mail to instead drop their ballots at approved sites, and Abbott had allowed counties to have more than one such site. And there was plenty of demand after widespread attention to fears of problems with the U.S. Postal Service and mail-in ballots. Harris County, for instance, had a dozen of them. But after the voting-fraud hawks descended with lawsuits and news releases, Abbott limited the drop-offs to one per county.

One rationale offered by advocates of this the-fewer-the-better approach was that it would be easier for political parties and others to recruit enough poll watchers if they only had to do one location. It’s not easier for voters, but the concern about security outweighed the argument for civic engagement.

That drop-off issue has gone back and forth in the courts. As of this writing, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has sided with the state and its limit of one drop-off location per county. On Thursday, a state district judge in Travis County ruled the other way, saying the state should allow counties to have more than one, but the state filed an appeal before the ink was dry. Stay tuned.

The state government seems to be operating this election on the idea that too much of a good thing is too much, that having just one place in each county to drop off absentee ballots is plenty, no matter how big or how crowded your county might be.

Convenience is trumped by a false claim of insecure ballots.

Insecure incumbents, more likely.

There is a reason you can’t drive a mile in any city in the state of Texas without encountering a gas station, a convenience store or an outpost of a national fast-food chain. They know about convenience, and about serving the maximum number of customers. Texas politicians, who love that “government should run like a business” line, should pay attention.

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