Texas Voters Sue to Overturn Governor’s Order Limiting Dropboxes to One Per County

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Two lawsuits are challenging last week’s order by Texas’ governor limiting ballot dropboxes to one per county, which forced several urban counties to dramatically scale back their plans. The Texas Tribune has more:

Voting rights advocates and civic groups have filed two separate federal lawsuits to block Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s last-minute order that allows Texas counties to provide no more than one drop-off location for voters casting absentee ballots.

Late Friday, the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans, the get-out-the-vote group BigTent Creative and a 65-year-old voter asked a federal judge in Austin to overturn the governor’s Oct. 1 order, which forced Travis and Harris counties — two of the state’s most important Democratic strongholds — to shutter a number of drop-off sites they had already opened this week. The challenge came a day after The Texas and National Leagues of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas and two Texas voters filed a lawsuit calling the directive an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote that will disproportionately impact voters of color in the state’s biggest cities.

“The impact of this eleventh-hour decisions is momentous, targets Texas’ most vulnerable voters—older voters, and voters with disabilities—and results in wild variations in access to absentee voting drop-off locations depending on the county a voter resides in,” attorneys in the LULAC suit argued. “It also results in predictable disproportionate impacts on minority communities that already hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis.”

The major argument in both lawsuits is that the order comes too close to the election, risking confusion and potentially disenfranchising voters who had made a voting plan based on the availability of dropboxes:

Attorneys in both cases also pointed out that Abbott was making a major change to election procedures just weeks away from an election — an action the state and its attorneys argued was improper in a separate federal lawsuit over straight-ticket voting.

Unprecedented numbers of Texas voters are requesting mail-in ballots for the highly charged election as the nation is in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. Many of those voters are expected to drop off their ballots in person rather than entrusting them to the U.S. Postal Service, which has been plagued by cutbacks and doubts over its ability to deliver ballots early enough to be counted.

Texas Republicans have vigorously fought efforts to facilitate increased mail-in balloting, particularly in Harris County, the state’s largest and a Democratic stronghold where voter turnout could prove pivotal in this year’s election.

The governor’s office, not surprisingly, disputes the claims of disenfranchisement and says the governor has actually expanded voting opportunities, the order notwithstanding:

Asked about the lawsuit, Abbott spokesman John Wittman said the governor “has expanded access to voting.”

Months ago, Abbott extended the early voting period by nearly a week and allowed voters to deliver their absentee ballots in person earlier than usual, citing the pandemic. His order this week limited where voters may turn in those ballots, not when.

Wittman added that the governor’s Oct. 1 order concerns only absentee ballots, most of which he said are submitted by mail.

“The additional time provided for those who want to submit their mail-in ballot in person is sufficient to accommodate the limited number of people who have traditionally used that voting strategy,” Wittman said.

Time is short to resolve the issue, with early voting starting soon and Election Day about four weeks away:

But more absentee ballots than ever are expected to be cast this year — some counties have already sent out twice as many as usual — and there are concerns about delays from the U.S. Postal Service.

The lawsuits will have to move quickly, with early voting set to begin in less than two weeks on Oct. 13.

Harris and Travis counties had each set up multiple locations for accepting absentee ballots and had already begun accepting them before Abbott issued his order shutting down the satellite locations. Voting rights experts say access to these locations is especially important given concerns over U.S. Postal Service delays and that closing them will  disproportionately impact voters with disabilities or without access to reliable transportation. Harris County is home to 2.4 million registered voters and stretches across some 1,700 square miles, more than the entire state of Rhode Island.

Ralph Edelbach of Cypress, an 82-year-old voter among those suing Abbott, had planned to drop his ballot off at a Harris County location that was 16 miles from his home — but now will have to travel 36 miles, nearly 90 minutes round trip, to reach the only location Abbott has allowed to stay open, according to court documents.

At a press conference Friday morning, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said he could reopen the shuttered locations “at the drop of a dime.”

“Ultimately, anything that’s done to decrease voter convenience, to put obstacles in the way of the voter, is voter suppression, and will lead to disenfranchisement,” he said.

Plaintiffs are also challenging the provision allowing for poll watchers at drop-off sites:

Abbott’s order, which came a day after the Texas solicitor general approved Harris County’s plan for multiple locations under earlier guidance from the governor, also said counties must allow poll watchers to observe goings-on at ballot drop-off sites. Voting rights advocates fear that poll watchers, who are selected by candidates or political parties, will seek to intimidate voters, as has been documented in the past.

Abbott claimed the limits on drop-off locations were necessary to ensure election integrity. But he provided no evidence that the drop-off sites enable voter fraud, which experts say is rare.

And the procedures for delivering an absentee ballot are strict. Voters must present an approved form of identification, show up during specified hours and can only deliver their own ballots.

The dispute puts a spotlight on Texas’ mail ballot rules, which are already among the strictest in the nation:

Texas is one of just a few states that is not allowing all voters to cast their ballots by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. Beyond extending the early voting timeframe, the state has done very little to expand Texans’ options for voting safely this fall. And its criteria for absentee ballots are unusually strict: Voters can vote by mail only if they are 65 or older, confined in jail but otherwise eligible, out of the county for the election period or cite a disability. The Texas Supreme Court has said that lack of immunity to the novel coronavirus does not itself constitute a disability, but that voters may consider that alongside their medical histories to decide whether they qualify.

With campaigns kicking into high gear in the last month before Election Day, this fight over dropboxes is likely to get a lot of attention – and could generate further uncertainty in the remaining weeks. Here’s hoping the issue can get resolved sooner rather than later so that Lone Star State voters know the “rules of the road” before deciding how to cast their ballots in the 2020 election. Stay tuned …

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