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Assuring Voter Safety During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Harris County Clerk debuts new protocols for the July 14 election.

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(photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

With early voting in the July 14 primary runoff election now underway amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Harris County has issued a plan to ensure voter safety. 

Newly-appointed Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins on June 15 announced S.A.F.E., a set of 23 initiatives to ensure voting is safe, secure, accessible, fair, and efficient, both now and during the November general election. The plan’s framework addresses the challenges of administering an election during an unprecedented pandemic by rethinking conventional practices to make voting more efficient.

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins

“The office is doing everything in our power to make polling sites as safe as possible for every voter and poll worker,” Hollins said. “Our poll workers are going to be equipped with [personal protection equipment] including masks, hand sanitizer, and plexiglass shields.” 

Hollins said that every voter will be given disinfectant wipes, access to hand sanitizer, and finger covers that limit the touching of voting machines. Poll workers will also regularly disinfect high-touch surface areas, and voting machines will be placed six feet apart, with floor markers for social distancing in the waiting lines. 

The Clerk’s office is also working to maximize voting by mail. “Voting from home is the safest way to vote, hands down,” Hollins said. “We’ve shared [this] information and sent mail-in ballot applications to everyone who is eligible.”  

People can find out if they’re eligible to vote by mail by going here. July 2 is the last day to apply for a ballot by mail, and mail-in ballots must be received by July 15 (with a postmark of July 14). 

In order to make voting more accessible, Harris County has increased the number of polling locations and extended voting hours. There will be 57 locations open during the early voting period, and 112 on Election Day. The runoff election’s early-voting period has doubled to 10 days, and voting hours will be extended to 10 p.m. on the last day of early voting. 

“We know historically that numbers tend to be lower during early voting,” Hollins said. “If you’re able to come in during that period, your exposure [to COVID-19] is going to be less than if you come in on Election Day.” 

There will be curbside voting available at every polling location, Hollins said. “If you don’t want to wear a mask or cannot wear one for health reasons, we encourage you to vote curbside so you don’t expose yourself or others [to COVID-19] by entering a polling site.”

Hollins said that Harris County has worked to ensure that the election will be fair by increasing outreach to all voters and groups that have been traditionally left out of the democratic process. On June 26, the Clerk’s Office released a Pride Month public-service announcement on social media addressing the rights that transgender and nonbinary voters have at the polls. 

“If your gender identity is different than what’s on your ID, that doesn’t affect your rights,” Hollins said. “As long as your relevant voter information (which is your name and your address) matches the acceptable form of ID, you have the right to vote.”

Watch the Harris County Clerk’s Pride Month PSA below:

Harris County is the only county in Texas to specifically include language that supports trans and nonbinary voters in election training, according to Hollins. “That portion of training is dedicated to how to check IDs, and ensuring that trans voters have the same rights as anybody else and are treated with the same respect as any voter.” 

“It’s important that the LGBTQ+ community has access to the polls,” Hollins said. “The County Clerk’s office is committed to bringing democracy to every resident of Harris County and to make sure your voices are heard this July and November.” 

Hollins, a 33-year-old attorney, was appointed interim Harris County Clerk on June 1 after Dr. Diane Trautman resigned due to health reasons. His first two weeks in office were spent meeting with his staff, stakeholders, and voting-rights groups to tackle the challenges of the July and November elections. Those discussions developed into the S.A.F.E. initiatives. 

The Transgender Education Network of Texas (TENT), an organization dedicated to furthering gender-diverse equality, worked with the Harris County Clerk’s office with several of the initiatives, including voting by mail, responsiveness of voter intimidation, voter outreach, poll worker recruitment, and poll worker training.

“There are so many issues that LGBTQ people face while voting,” said Andrea Segovia, TENT’s policy coordinator. “[Clerk Hollins] reached out to us because he wanted to have a conversation about this. His entire team is working hard to get marginalized people to vote.”

LGBTQ people are often at higher risk of autoimmune issues, Segovia notes. However, she believes the Clerk’s Office is going above and beyond to protect the wellness of every voter and poll worker.

“[The Clerk’s Office] hasn’t left any step out from start to finish,” Segovia said. “I am really impressed by how much they are valuing the importance of cleanliness. They are making sure that everyone at the polls is well taken care of.”

Going forward, Hollins promises to recruit more poll workers for the November election. He hopes that more members of the LGBTQ community consider applying at harrisvotes.com/pollworkers. “We want all underrepresented groups, including the LGBTQ+ community, to be involved in the process.” 

Early voting for the July 14 election runs through July 10. Polling locations will be closed on July 3 and 4 for the 4th of July holiday. For more information on where to vote, visit harrisvotes.com.

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Lourdes Zavaleta

Lourdes Zavaleta is the managing editor of OutSmart magazine.

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