Texas counties may collect mail-in ballots at only one location, a federal appeals court ruled late Monday, once again upholding an order from Gov. Greg Abbott that restricts voting options.
Abbott in July acted to lengthen the early voting period and allow voters to deliver completed absentee ballots in person for longer than the normal period. But after large Democratic counties including Harris and Travis established several sites where voters could deliver their ballots, Abbott ordered Oct. 1 that they would be limited to one.
A number of civil rights groups sued in at least four lawsuits, calling the order an act of voter suppression that would disproportionately impact low-income voters, voters with disabilities, older voters and voters of color in Democratic counties. A federal judge on Friday sided with those groups, blocking Texas from enforcing the ruling.
But a three-judge panel on the conservative U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily halted that ruling on Saturday and on Monday gave a more formal word on the matter in a written opinion.
"Leaving the Governor's October 1 Proclamation in place still gives Texas absentee voters many ways to cast their ballots in the November 3 election. These methods for remote voting outstrip what Texas law previously permitted in a pre-COVID world," wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan for the panel of three judges all appointed by President Donald Trump. "The October 1 Proclamation abridges no one's right to vote."
Travis County had designated four locations and Harris County — home to 2.4 million registered voters and spanning a greater distance than the state of Rhode Island — had designated a dozen before Abbott's order forced them to close most sites. Fort Bend and Galveston counties also planned to use multiple locations, according to court documents.
Voting rights advocates and local election administrators said the extra sites were critical for helping voters cast their ballots safely during the coronavirus pandemic. Texas is set to receive an unprecedented number of absentee ballots this year, and amid concerns over U.S. Postal Service delays, advocates say, in-person drop-off locations are critical.
Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has not hesitated to say the governor's decision amounts to voter suppression.
"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," Hollins said earlier this month.
In some states, voters can simply leave their ballots in boxes outside town halls or local churches. Not in Texas, where voters must show an election worker an approved form of identification and can only bring their own ballot.
Abbott had argued that the measure was necessary to ensure election integrity, but he did not provide any evidence and his office did not answer questions about how limiting the highly regulated drop-off locations would do so. In court filings, lawyers for the Texas attorney general's office wrote that some counties wouldn't provide "adequate election security, including poll watchers" — "inconsistencies" that the state argued "introduced a risk to ballot integrity."
Abbott said that poll watchers must be allowed at the drop-off sites, as they are at in-person voting sites. Experts say voter fraud is rare, but Republican officials in Texas and nationally have sought to cast doubt on the security of absentee ballots even as their political party calls on its own voters to use them.
The appeals court ruled Monday that Texas did not need to show evidence of voter fraud to justify its decision to limit counties to one location.
"Such evidence has never been required to justify a state's prophylactic measures to decrease occasions for vote fraud or to increase the uniformity and predictability of election administration," Duncan wrote for the court.
One voter who sued the state over the order, 82-year-old Ralph Edelbach, said in court documents that closing the site nearest his Cypress home will mean he adds an extra 20 miles each way to his trip to deliver his ballot, forcing him to spend nearly 90 minutes round trip.
That inconvenience will only be greater, advocates say, for voters with disabilities or those without reliable access to transportation.
The groups that sued the governor include the Texas and National Leagues of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House of Representatives and the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.
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