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Court ruling forces McLennan County to call back 8,000 ballots, add Green Party candidates

Court ruling forces McLennan County to call back 8,000 ballots, add Green Party candidates


A Texas Supreme Court ruling returning Green Party candidates to the November ballot will cost McLennan County some green, as more than 8,000 absentee ballots ready for distribution will have to be scrapped and re-produced with the candidates included.

The county could spend thousands extra, just for mail-in ballot materials and postage to comply with the last-minute wrangling in the courts, based on a breakdown provided by McLennan County Elections Administrator Kathy Van Wolfe showing 25 cents to produce each ballot, 10 cents each for envelopes and labels, and 65 cents each for postage. That is in addition to days of already complete staff work that will have to be repeated.

“We have to start over,” Van Wolfe said. “We may have to work around the clock, but we will get it done. We had 8,100 mail-in ballots sitting in a car, ready to be carried to the Post Office, when we were notified of what happened. We’ve already been getting calls from people wanting to know about their ballot, asking, ‘When am I going to get it?’ Well, it’s going to be a little longer now, probably the end of the month.”

Last month, a state appeals court sided with the Democrats, who were seeking to kick the candidates off the ballot because they had not paid filing fees, the Texas Tribune reported. The three candidates are David Collins for U.S. Senate, Katija “Kat” Gruene for Railroad Commission and Tom Wakely for the 21st Congressional District.

The Texas Green Party appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, which ruled Tuesday that the secretary of state “shall immediately take all necessary actions to ensure these candidates appear on the” November ballot. The Supreme Court did not give its rationale, but said a full opinion was forthcoming.

A brief guide to state absentee voting rules and resources for requesting mail-in ballots for the upcoming election.

It is the latest development in a spate of legal battles over third parties on the November ballot. At issue is a new requirement that third parties pay filing fees like Democrats and Republicans do. The law, passed last year by the Legislature, is the subject of multiple legal challenges, and many third-party candidates had not paid filing fees amid the pending litigation.

A state appeals court upheld the 2019 law last week.

While the Democrats were initially successful in booting the three Green Party candidates off the ballot, Republicans more recently failed in their bid to remove 44 Libertarians from the ticket for a similar reason. In rejecting the GOP effort earlier this month, the Supreme Court said the party waited too long to raise the issue.

The Green Party focuses on issues such as climate change and social justice, regularly leading to complaints that it siphons votes away from Democrats. Libertarians, who promote limiting the scope of government, are often believed to draw votes from Republicans.

Whatever the case, McLennan County joins counties around the state in scrambling to prepare fresh ballots that include Green Party nominees.

“What will it cost? Too much,” Van Wolfe said.

Even as it continues to process about 2,000 pending applications for ballots by mail and receives new applications daily, the county elections office must now tweak and retest the election database, create new ballots with the additional names and prepare them for mailing.

“We prepared database, tested ballots for use in machines and for mail-in, which is a five-day process,” Van Wolfe said by email. “We printed ballots and placed labels in envelopes, a three-day process; and stuffed ballots in envelopes, a three-day process.

“All this work will have to be redone at this point.”

The county has a Saturday deadline for mailing its 246 Federal Post Card Applications to overseas and military voters, then will send the rest of its mail-in ballots “as soon as possible,” she said.

Van Wolfe only half-jokingly said her staff may work around-the-clock to meet deadlines. She has recruited temporary help at the rate of $10 an hour.

Records provided by Van Wolfe show the Secretary of State on Aug. 28 certified the ballot the county now must discard. Meanwhile, preparations continue for early voting beginning Oct. 13.

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It is crunch time for finalizing ballots across the state, with a Saturday deadline for counties to mail overseas and military ballots. The state’s most populous county, Harris County, wrote to the Supreme Court on Monday saying that “it is too late to make changes,” even if the court acted that day.

In an email sent to county election officials shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Texas secretary of state indicated that counties that had already sent out mail ballots would need to send a corrected version “as soon as possible.”

“The Supreme Court’s ruling and ballot change will not be an acceptable excuse for missing the (Sept. 19) deadline,” wrote Keith Ingram, the state’s director of elections. “That deadline must still be met.”

State law requires corrected ballots to include both a written notice explaining the change and instructions to destroy “defective” ballots that have not yet been returned to a county. A defective ballot returned to the county will be counted if a corrected ballot is not returned in time.

For most people voting absentee, Texas counties must receive completed ballots by Election Day. If they are postmarked by 7 p.m. that day, they will be counted if they come in the next day by 5 p.m. Completed ballots from military or overseas voters are accepted if they’re mailed by Election Day and received by Nov. 9.

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Tribune-Herald staff writer Mike Copeland and the Texas Tribune contributed to this report.

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