One of the most hotly debated and contested subjects of this upcoming November’s election is the use of mail-in ballots, partly due to their widespread use that developed in response to challenges in getting voters to physically cast their ballots.

The laws on casting one’s ballot vary from state to state, but in the state of Texas, one must be 65 years or older,be sick or disabled, be out of the county on Election Day and during the period for early voting by personal appearance, or be confined in jail, but otherwise not eligible in order to cast a ballot by mail (according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office).

According to Elizabeth Lewis, administrator of communications and voter outreach for Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins’ office, the county has already sent “applications … to voters 65 and older.” These voters are eligible under Texas law to submit a mail-in ballot, and Hollins’ office sent eligible voters’ applications for ballot by mail, whereby one is required to provide their signature. Lewis explained that anyone else, however, is still eligible to request a mail-in ballot form if they have a legitimate reason.

The steps for the mail-in voting process in Texas can be located at sos.texas.gov/elections/voter/reqabbm but they would otherwise include filling out an application either online or by mail if one was not sent by a county clerk. The eligibility of the voters receiving these applications in their mail seems straightforward, yet residents from across the Houston area have drawn attention to several discrepancies in this process. Perhaps the worst inconsistencies in these mail-in ballot applications involve those are literally sent to the deceased.

One local resident, Karen Bougton, shared her recent challenges with the mail-in ballot process in a conversation with The Tribune.

Boughton was surprised when one morning she received an application for a ballot by mail. She would not be surprised to see a mail-in ballot application if it had been for herself, but rather, it was for her mother who died 12 years ago. Moreover, Boughton’s mother’s permanent residence, according to her, “was in South Carolina, and [I could not recollect] a time when [my mother] voted in the state of Texas.”

Boughton expressed her immediate concern once receiving the application. “What is alarming to me is what if we did not live here anymore? What if someone had lived here and used this mail-in application for fraudulent purposes? Who is to stop such an unethical political opportunity by simply signing the mail-in ballot request form and submitting it to the county?”

She added, “Many members of the Kingwood community have expressed similar concerns with such applications, with some electronically stating that even their pets have received applications for mail-in ballots.”

Boughton is far from alone in her concerns over mail-in ballots.

According to Lewis, there are steps in place to ensure that the applications for mail-in ballots are faithfully represented. “There are security measures in place; the applications [for mail-in ballots] are processed and the signatures enter a data entry process where they are cross-examined to previous voter signatures to detect fraud. One’s address must be on file because if there is an issue, the voter is then contacted,” said Lewis.

She explained that before a ballot is sent to the voter, these criteria must be satisfied.

She added, “When the actual ballot is returned to the clerk’s office, the signature is again validated. There is a bipartisan committee that ensures no fraud is taking place.”

“Additionally, we use the SOS deceased records so if an application/ballot comes to us that is from someone who is deceased it is flagged as we cross reference the SOS death records database,” she said.
Lewis also explained that the Harris County Clerk’s Office is not responsible for the voter roll, rather, it is handled by the tax accessor’s office. Thus, if records on their part are not correct, the clerk’s office unfortunately sends mail-in ballots to either the wrong address or to the deceased. She mentioned that third parties can also send in applications for mail-in ballots and suggested caution.

She noted that although voter fraud is minimal and practically not a problem, “it is not out of the realm of possibility.”

Fraud, as Boughton presumed, is indeed possible to commit (especially in a case of the deceased) by “faking” a signature. Quite literally, anyone with reasonable access and knowledge can fill out the application for a mail-in ballot and attempt to commit voter fraud. As Lewis explained, this fear is not irrational, but there are steps in place to catch any perpetrators that attempt to cast a mail-in ballot for someone else.

The applications require a signature that is compared to existing voter records. The comparison process that was in place, however, has recently been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge. According to FOX news, “A federal judge in Texas ruled that the state’s system of verifying signatures on mail-in ballots was unconstitutional and should be immediately corrected in advance of Election Day in November.”

Judge Orlando Garcia ruled that “voters whose signatures are perceived to be mismatching must be mailed a notice of the election board’s determination within one day, and, in the event that a voter believes his or her ballot was improperly rejected, the voter may seek to verify the ballot by contacting an election official via phone or mail.”

Lewis confirmed that the Harris County Clerk’s Office will attempt to contact all voters who have their signature cross-referenced (as now required by law).

For more information on this subject matter, visit the Harris County Clerk’s website at cclerk.hctx.net.


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