Mailing it in: Some Texans vote with a stamp, not at polls

Election 2016: How will Texans vote?

Two weeks before the presidential election, the Star Telegram asks first-time voters at Tarrant County College and long-time voters at the Hurst Senior Center who they are voting for on Nov. 8.
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Two weeks before the presidential election, the Star Telegram asks first-time voters at Tarrant County College and long-time voters at the Hurst Senior Center who they are voting for on Nov. 8.

Sue Hauf of Fort Worth didn’t want anything to stop her from voting in this year’s presidential election.

So when a mail-in ballot for the Nov. 8 election showed up in her mailbox, she decided to use it even though she couldn’t remember whether she asked for it in the first place.

“I do have some little health issues and if the weather turned bad, I wouldn’t go” to the polls, said Hauf, 65. “I thought it’s here, so I might as well use it.”

And she did, as did her 86-year-old mother, who would have had a hard time making it to a polling place.

They are among the Tarrant County voters who say the option of voting by mail — geared to help many including overseas residents, people in the military and senior citizens — gives the security of knowing they’ll get to cast their ballot even if for some reason they can’t make it to the polls.

Hundreds of thousands of Texans are expected to vote by mail-in ballot this year, at a time when concerns continue to be voiced about the process, which lets people vote from their homes without any ID or verification of identity.

State officials have been in Tarrant County investigating a Republican complaint about mail-in ballots, potentially looking at concerns about “vote harvesting,” in which people fill out and return other people’s ballots.

Local Democratic Hispanic leaders in turn filed a complaint with the Justice Department, asking officials to investigate complaints that senior citizens in Tarrant County have been so intimidated by “vigilante-style” tactics from this GOP-led investigation that they are afraid to vote by mail or in person.

For Hauf, her biggest concern is whether her ballot is received and counted.

“I like this process a lot,” she said. “My only problem with it is I wish I got a receipt. After it arrives where you send it, I wish there was some way you absolutely positively knew it got there. I believe it got there, but it would be nice if a little receipt arrived in the mail saying so.”

More mail-in ballots are being requested in Tarrant County than ever.

More than 42,000 requests for the ballots have been made locally, compared with 39,272 in 2012 and 35,452 in 2008, Tarrant County election records show.

Early voting runs through Nov. 4.

In the state’s 15 largest counties, fewer than 220,000 of the 3.4 million early votes cast in November 2012 were mailed in, and fewer than 210,000 of the 3.5 million early votes cast in November 2008 were mailed in, state election records show.

The last day to ask for a ballot by mail was Oct. 28. Early voting runs through Friday.

Confidence in elections

Supporters have long said mail-in balloting is crucial for overseas residents, the military and senior citizens. Critics maintain that it is ripe for abuse.

“Obviously mail-in ballots are a key way to elicit votes from folks whose travel schedule, military deployment, student status, or physical infirmities would otherwise keep them from voting,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU.

Riddlesperger knows that firsthand because his son voted in the 2008 presidential election using a mail-in ballot when he served in the military and was deployed to Iraq.

But it’s a system, he said, that must be monitored to make sure it’s serving voters the best way possible and keeps up with the continual evolution of technology.

Some fear that local complaints about mail-in ballots will intimidate some voters from casting ballots in this year’s presidential election — or come just in time to lay the groundwork for the Texas Legislature to enact more voting restrictions next year.

“With some observers already challenging that this year’s election may be rigged, the appearance of fairness has taken on a special importance,” Riddlesperger said. “Critically, it is public confidence that elections are fair that is critical — ironically perhaps more critical that the fact itself.

“Confidence in the legitimacy of government is the cornerstone of democratic governance,” he said. “Without public confidence, the success of government in solving public problems is jeopardized.”

College students

Jesse Wright is among the countless college students across the state and country casting mail-in ballots, sending their votes back to their home county, which for him is Tarrant County.

Wright, 21, who attends the University of Texas at Austin, said mail-in ballots let him vote without spending the money for a round-trip bus ticket and taking time off from his job or studying.

“If I had to take a trip back home, that would mean I’d have to put all of my schoolwork on hold,” he said. “That’s just not feasible, especially for students that don’t live as close to home as I do. Voting by mail removes that penalty.

“It simplifies the process to an application and then a ballot that comes in the mail,” he said. “No bus tickets, no cost, no trip.”

Wright, of Arlington, said this year is the first time he has used a mail-in ballot.

For more information about races on the Nov. 8 ballot, go online to the Star-Telegram’s Voters Guide.

Kelsey Ritchie, a 21-year-old TCU senior, recently cast her first vote ever — by putting her ballot in the mail and sending it to election officials in her hometown, Tulsa.

“If the mail-in process didn’t exist, I would not be able to vote this year simply because that would be a 10-hour round trip in a single day to make it home to Oklahoma,” said Ritchie, the student government vice president of external affairs at TCU. “Plus, I would have to miss class and other commitments here.”

She said the mail-in system is key to letting people away from their home cast ballots.

She did say, though, that the system seems “outdated.”

“I would not be surprised if we see a streamlined process for online voting or a process that allows you to vote at whatever polling station is closest to your current location but still allows your vote to be counted toward your county,” she said.

Overseas residents

Robert Camuto, a freelance writer and former Star-Telegram reporter who lives in Italy, has used mail-in ballots since he left the United States in 2001.

U.S. law stipulates that he vote in the last place he lived in the United States, which was Tarrant County.

Until this year, he said, using mail-in ballots was easy.

But this year, instead of receiving a paper ballot in the mail, he received an email saying he needed to access the election server to download the ballots, which he couldn’t do on three different computers at his home.

After talking about his problem with someone at the Tarrant County Elections Office, he was sent an email that allowed him to access and print out the ballot.

He’s already filled it out and put it in the mail.

“For Americans living and working overseas, (the mail-in ballot) is necessary,” said Camuto, 58, the founder of the Fort Worth Weekly.

But he did have one suggestion.

“I actually think Americans abroad should have their own representative — because we as expats (who do pay U.S. taxes ) have different concerns, perspectives and needs,” he said.

Over 65

When Dan Mustarde of Fort Worth turned 65 a few years ago, he signed up for mail-in ballots.

Voting from home lets him take his time considering the candidates, giving him a chance to research anyone he might not be familiar with before casting his ballot.

“I think there would probably be some elderly people like me that might not be able to vote without this,” said Mustarde, 68.

Mustarde, who has mailed in his ballot, said he isn’t worried about vote harvesting.

But he does sometimes wonder if the mail-in ballot he sends in is received and counted.

“I’ve always wondered about it,” he said. “How do I know it gets counted? … It would make me feel better if I got a postcard back from them saying, ‘We got your ballot and your vote has been counted.’ 

Phil Bednar of Mansfield said this is the second presidential election in which he voted by mail.

“Why not sit at my kitchen table and fill out the ballot?” said Bednar, 81, adding that he didn’t solicit the mail-in ballot but did return the form that was sent to him at home. “It’s a convenience.”

Shannon Hart, 70, of Westworth Village said she knows that mail-in ballots make voting easier.

But she doesn’t want that convenience this year, even though she’s voted by mail before.

So she wasn’t sure what to do when a mail-in ballot arrived at her house.

After talking to election officials, Hart learned she could turn her ballot in during the early voting period or on Election Day, sign a form and then vote in person.

“I’ve always been leery about whether my mail-in ballot is getting counted,” Hart said. “I’ve always wondered, does it really get counted? Or is it tossed aside?

“This election is so critical; I want to make sure my vote is counted.”

Anna M. Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

Election Day Information

The deadline to ask for a mail-in ballot has passed. It was Oct. 28.

To see a sample ballot, go to the Tarrant County elections website.

For more information about candidates on the Nov. 8 ballot, go to the Star-Telegram website, www.star-telegram.com, to read the online Voters Guide.

If you have any election related questions, call the Tarrant County Elections Administration at 817-831-8683.