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Lean toward voters ondisputed mail ballots

November 6, 2018

The last-minute dispute over some mailed ballots in Jefferson County looks like a problem that could have largely been avoided with better oversight by election officials. Voters should be given the benefit of the doubt in cases like this whenever possible. Voting is fundamental to our democracy, and no voter should ever be shut out for frivolous or partisan reasons.

Many of the 86 ballots that were temporarily held up had differences in signatures between the application form and the returned ballot. That’s clearly a valid concern, and election officials will have to make some judgment calls. But one voter wrote his name in block letters on one form and then signed it in cursive on the other. Another problem like this is voters who use their middle initial on one form but not on another.

Discrepancies like that don’t seem like fraud. They seem like the kind of innocent mistakes that many people could make.

This crisis was partly defused by a temporary restraining order issued by state District Judge Justin Sanderson. He ordered the Early Voting Ballot Board to return the rejected ballots to their owners so they might be able to vote in person today. That will work for some voters, but others might not be able to get to a voting site today.

The very nature of mailed ballots is that they are often used by people who might have issues that make it hard for them to vote in person. Some are blind, or in their 80s or 90s. It’s highly unlikely that every single one of these voters will take advantage of this opportunity by the judge and, in effect, try for a second time to cast a vote. For some who were displaced by Tropical Storm Harvey, it may be virtually impossible.

Jefferson County Clerk Carolyn Guidry, who is being challenged by Republican Bailey Wingate, said the county could consider setting up a signature verification committee to handle future discrepancies. That’s an excellent idea … that should have already been in place. Again, the county’s focus should be on finding ways to help people vote, not setting up roadblocks to it.

This midterm election has seen a surge in voting over the last midterm voting in Texas in 2014, and that’s encouraging. But even in presidential years, when voting peaks, turnout hovers at about half of eligible voters. No one should be satisfied with that.

Public officials can’t make people vote, but they can do as much as possible to make it easy for them to cast their ballots. It should be possible for Texas counties to have voting procedures that find the right balance between security and accessibility. We’re not there yet, and we need to do better by the next round of voting. Election officials need to make this a priority; we suggest they start working on it tomorrow.

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