(TNS) — The coronavirus pandemic is expected to drive millions of Americans to vote by mail this year, a shift that data suggest is underway even in Texas, where only some voters are allowed to cast mail ballots.

Texas’ Republican leaders this year have fought efforts to expand mail balloting or have questioned its integrity, with some echoing President Donald Trump’s baseless claims that mail ballots are a source of rampant fraud.

And yet, historically, mail ballots in Harris County clearly have favored Republicans, a Houston Chronicle analysis of election data shows.

Though the GOP presidential candidate narrowly lost Harris County in 2008 and 2012, for example, the Republican ticket won three quarters of the 300 voting precincts in which the most mail ballots were cast in both elections. That trend held even in 2016, when Trump lost the county badly but still won two-thirds of the 100 voting precincts in which the most mail ballots were cast.

What most drives the partisan skew in mail ballots, University of Houston political scientist Jeronimo Cortina said, is Texas’ status as one of the few states to require voters younger than 65 to have an excuse to cast a ballot by mail.

“The constituency of the Republican Party tends to be older,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that Republicans are more likely to vote by mail just because they’re Republicans, but maybe because being Republican is correlated with other demographics that make you more likely to vote by mail, in comparison to Democrats.”

As of Tuesday, more than 230,000 Harris County residents had requested mail ballots — more than twice the 2016 figure — and some 41,000 people already had returned them. An analysis of the precincts driving the increase in mail ballot requests suggests no obvious partisan advantage.

Just 0.2 percent of mail voters hand-delivered their ballots during the low-turnout July primary runoff. However, concerns about postal service delays helped drive 13 percent of mail voters to deliver their ballots to the county election headquarters at NRG Park as of Tuesday.

Among them was Dan Shellist, 77, a resident of Precinct 234, a Galleria-area precinct that Trump carried by nine points in 2016 — and in which 656 voters cast mail ballots that year, tied for the most of any precinct in the county.

Shellist has voted by mail for years without incident, but was worried enough about mail delays that he and his wife decided to drive 20 minutes across town to drop off their ballots last week.

“We were willing to do that just to make sure we got the vote in,” Shellist said. “I just didn’t feel comfortable putting it in the mailbox. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but I just figured this was the closest thing to getting it in the right place.”

Four Areas

The Shellists live in one of the four areas that routinely produce about a quarter of Harris County’s mail ballots, despite including just a tenth of the county’s voting precincts.

These conservative-leaning areas, Census data show, are home mostly to white residents older than 65. They are:

  • Westside: Three dozen precincts in the rectangle between Interstate 10 and Westheimer, Barker Reservoir and the West Loop. The county’s top three precincts by mail-ballot volume are in this area.
  • Champions Forest: Three dozen precincts between Texas 249 and Interstate 45 on the north side of F.M. 1960. The top precincts for mail ballots in this area are those that border 1960.
  • Kingwood: A dozen precincts along the county’s northern border, with U.S. 69 to the west, F.M. 1960 to the south and the east fork of the San Jacinto River to the east.
  • Inner Loop: A cluster of a dozen precincts running from River Oaks through Boulevard Oaks down to West University Place.

All four areas backed the Republican candidate in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, and all recorded, on average, an 11-point drop in support for Trump four years ago — though the Inner Loop area was the only one of the four areas to tilt far enough to favor Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Though mail balloting generally has favored Republicans, some individual mail-heavy precincts do vote Democratic. In fact, the precinct in which the highest share of votes cast by mail in each of the last two presidential elections — excluding precincts with fewer than 200 total ballots cast — is home almost exclusively to Democratic voters.

That is Precinct 259, the historically Black east Houston neighborhood of Pleasantville.

The area, which has seen increasing numbers of Latino residents settle in recent years, was one of the first planned communities in Houston for African American and has been civically active since its founding.

Pleasantville resident Rose Curry, 95, has voted by mail for decades, but the president’s rhetoric has concerned her and her family.

“I’m 95 years old, so I've been getting a ballot to vote by mail for years, but with everything going on now I told my daughter that I’d like to vote in person,” Curry said.

Suppression vs Security

Texas is one of just five states not accepting fear of COVID-19 as an excuse to vote by mail this year.

The state Supreme Court in May ruled that simply lacking immunity to the virus did not qualify as a “disability” under state law, though the justices said voters could consider their own health conditions in deciding whether to vote by mail.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, however, has warned his office could prosecute “third parties” advising voters under 65 to cast mail ballots due to fear of COVID-19. Paxton has argued “each misapplication” of the law “increases the risk of voter fraud.”

Paxton also secured a state Supreme Court ruling barring Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, a Democrat, from sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter in Harris County, regardless of age. In addition to having a disability, voters younger than 65 can request mail ballots because they are in jail or will be out of the county during the election period.

Gov. Greg Abbott in July expanded the period during which voters can drop off mail ballots in person, but then this month, citing “ballot security,” limited each county to just one drop-off site, closing 11 sites in Harris County.

Democrats and voting rights activists accused Abbott of voter suppression and sued, and again met with unfavorable court rulings.

The tension is clear, said Houston Democratic political consultant Marc Campos: Though voting by mail typically has given Republicans an edge, giving more voters that option in a blue county such as Harris would benefit Democrats.

“That’s why they’re concerned,” Campos said. “They realize the election is a lot closer than they thought it was going to be — they may lose the Texas House of Representatives — and they’re taking a hard-line stance.”

More than 10,300 people had requested mail ballots due to a disability as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the county clerk’s office, or about 4.5 percent of the total mail ballot requests, though some of those voters could decide to vote in person. Typically, a little less than 3 percent of mail ballots are cast by voters who used the disability justification. The share of voters to use their age as a reason to vote by mail, meanwhile, has increased to 90 percent all of mail ballots thus far; up from 83 percent overall in 2016.

Voter Confusion

GOP political consultant Kevin Shuvalov said conservative opposition to an expansion of mail balloting is about respecting the law, arguing that Hollins has moved too aggressively to change voting processes ahead of what is expected to be the highest-turnout election in county history.

“It’s not about suppression, it’s about giving people the respect that when you show up to vote it’s going to be an efficient process,” Shuvalov said. “There are ways of changing Texas election law. On the fly is not one of them. This year both sides are frustrated because they feel like it’s been done on the fly.”

Still, Shuvalov said he worries Trump’s attacks on mail ballots are self-defeating. He has fielded calls from conservative voters who requested mail ballots but did not recall doing so, and so were distrustful of their ballots.

“This piece of paper they got in the mail, now they’re suspicious of it,” he said. “What happens if some of our best voters, because of his rhetoric, think the system is rigged? We could lose close elections. I wish the president would tell the voters, ‘If you’ve received an absentee ballot, fill it out, mail it in. If you’re unsure, call your local election office. They will help you.’ It’s very concerning.”

The leaders of the county’s political party chapters said they have been flooded with calls from voters confused about mail balloting.

Harris County Republican Party Chairman Keith Nielsen said some seniors are under the impression they must deliver their mail ballots in person this year, rather than that being one delivery option, and pinned the confusion on Hollins’ attempts to expand voting options.

“You could make elections easy by doing it by phone,” Nielsen said, “but that doesn’t make it a safe process.”

The flurry of litigation also has produced a lot of confusion for Democratic Party Chair Lillie Schechter’s voters.

“The name of the game for Republicans is voter suppression through confusion,” Schechter said. “Every day filing a different lawsuit, every day the president’s screaming about mail fraud, which we all know the actual incidents of vote-by-mail fraud are tiny.”

While some studies have shown a slightly higher risk of mail-in voting fraud compared to in-person voting, the Brennan Center for Justice in 2017 said the risk of mail ballot fraud is less than a thousandth of a percent.

©2020 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.