"Attempt to manipulate": Abbott limits Texas counties to one absentee ballot drop-off location

Harris County, home to Houston, is roughly 1,700 square miles, or an area larger than the state of Rhode Island

Published October 2, 2020 10:32AM (EDT)

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (Lynda M. Gonzalez-Pool/Getty Images)
Texas Governor Greg Abbott (Lynda M. Gonzalez-Pool/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on The Texas Tribune.

Gov. Greg Abbott threw the weight of his office Thursday behind Republican efforts to limit options for Texas voters who want to hand-deliver their completed absentee ballots for the November election — a rebuke to some large, Democratic counties that have set up multiple drop-off locations in what they call an effort to maximize voter convenience.

The Republican governor issued a proclamation directing counties to designate just one location for ballot drop-offs, and allowing political parties to install poll watchers to observe the process.

An unprecedented number of absentee ballots are expected to be cast this year as voters who qualify under Texas' unusually strict vote-by-mail rules opt to avoid the health risks of voting in person. Republican officials have aggressively fought Democratic efforts to expand access to mail-in ballots during the pandemic.

President Donald Trump and many Republicans have sowed misinformation and confusion about the integrity of mail-in voting, which experts say is safe. With the U.S. Postal Service warning of potential delays, many Texans are eager to deliver their completed absentee ballots in person.

Harris County, the state's most populous and a major Democratic stronghold, had designated a dozen locations where voters could deliver their own ballots — and already began collecting them this week. The locations are spread out across the county's roughly 1,700 square miles, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

In Travis County, also a major Democratic stronghold, officials had designated four locations where voters could deliver their ballots.

"This is a deliberate attempt to manipulate the election," Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said Thursday at a press conference outside one of the county's drop-off locations. Travis County officials say they plan to fight the order.

Lina Hidalgo, the Democratic Harris County judge, said "this isn't security, it's suppression."

And Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said "to force hundreds of thousands of seniors and voters with disabilities to use a single drop-off location in a county that stretches over nearly 2,000 square miles is prejudicial and dangerous."

Democratic groups are weighing filing a lawsuit as soon as Friday challenging Abbott's order, according to one party source who was not authorized to speak on the record.

The ballot drop-off locations are staffed, and voters must present an approved form of identification to deliver their ballots. They may not turn in ballots for other voters.

Voting rights advocates say Abbott's move will make absentee balloting more difficult in a year when more Texans than ever are expected to vote by mail. Drop-off locations, advocates said, are particularly important given concerns about Postal Service delays, especially for disabled voters or those without access to reliable transportation.

"It raises a real concern that people are going to have just one more barrier to successfully submitting their ballot," barriers that will disproportionately hurt voters of color and those with disabilities, said Mimi Marziani, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which advocates for voting rights among other issues. "And it opens the door to voter intimidation."

Texas has extended the early voting period by six days and is allowing voters to drop off absentee ballots before Election Day, but has done little else to give voters more options for safely casting ballots during the coronavirus pandemic. Other states have allowed for universal absentee voting or even set up drop-off boxes where voters can deliver their ballots.

Abbott described his proclamation as an effort to "strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state." A spokesperson did not respond to questions about how allowing multiple drop-off locations might lead to fraud.

There is "not a shred of evidence," Marziani said, that it would.

Abbott also announced that election clerks may collect absentee ballots only if they also permit poll watchers to observe the delivery of those ballots, "including the presentation of an acceptable form of identification."

Nationally, the Republican Party is ramping up a multimillion-dollar effort to recruit poll watchers this year, the first presidential election in almost 40 years that the Republican National Committee has not been under a federal court order imposed to rein in the party's "ballot security" efforts, which have a history of trying to intimidate voters of color.

In Texas, poll watchers are selected by candidates, political parties, or proponents or opponents of ballot measures — that is, people who have a stake in the outcome of the election. They must stand as silent sentinels and are not permitted to speak to voters or be inside voting booths.

But they, like voters themselves, are not required to wear masks to polling places this year, an exemption from the governor's statewide mask order.

"These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting," Abbott said.

While there are documented cases of voter fraud in Texas, they are rare, and experts say absentee ballots are a secure way to vote this year.

The Texas Democratic Party slammed Abbott's move.

"Republicans are on the verge of losing, so Governor Abbott is trying to adjust the rules last minute," Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. "We are creating a movement that will beat them at the ballot box on November 3, and there's nothing these cheaters can do about it."

Wesley Story, spokesperson for the liberal group Progress Texas, called the proclamation "a blatant attempt to suppress voters."

Harris County has already begun collecting absentee ballots at a number of locations across the sprawling county. Abbott said that ballots collected before Oct. 2 remain valid, subject to earlier rules. In July, Abbott gave voters more time to deliver their absentee ballots in person, an option typically available only on Election Day.

Texas has maintained its unusually strict criteria for absentee ballots during the pandemic. Voters qualify only if they are 65 or older, are confined in jail but otherwise eligible, are outside of their county through the election period, or cite a disability or illness. The Texas Supreme Court has ruled that lack of immunity to the coronavirus does not itself constitute disability, but that voters must consider that alongside their own personal medical history to decide whether they are eligible. Election administrators do not have the power to vet a voter's disability claims or demand documentation, but providing false information is a crime.

The question of absentee ballot delivery in Harris County is already being disputed in a legal challenge filed by Houston Republicans earlier this week. A group of candidates and officials including the Harris County GOP has asked the Texas Supreme Court to limit the locations where voters can drop off their ballots, as well as to shorten the early voting period Abbott has laid out. That case is pending before the court.

On Wednesday, the day before the governor's proclamation, Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins weighed in at the request of the court and backed Harris County's efforts as lawful under the governor's earlier orders.

Nothing in the law says that multiple drop-off locations cannot be used, Hawkins argued, and "accordingly, the Secretary of State has advised local officials that the Legislature has permitted ballots to be returned to any early-voting clerk office."

Early voting is set to begin Oct. 13.

Disclosure: Progress Texas and the Texas secretary of state have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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By Emma Platoff

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