Texas doesn’t have to tell voters if their mail-in ballots were rejected until after election: court

The ruling allows officials to reject ballots over mismatched signatures without allowing voters to correct them

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published October 20, 2020 12:54PM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Joe Biden | Texas (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Joe Biden | Texas (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

A federal appellate court panel on Monday ruled that Texas neither has to give voters a chance to correct issues with their ballots nor inform them if a ballot was rejected until after the election.

The ruling allows election officials to reject ballots over mismatched signatures without allowing voters to correct the problem — or even notifying them of a pending rejection.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled last month that the state's process for verifying signatures on mail-in ballots "plainly violates certain voters' constitutional rights" and was "inherently fraught with error with no recourse for voters." Garcia ordered the state to change its process, because the current one "fails to guarantee basic fairness."

A three-judge panel on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the order last month. It allowed the state on Monday to keep its current rules in place until it reviews the case after the election, according to The Texas Tribune.

Under the current rules, the state does not have any process to allow voters to correct their ballots and does not have to inform voters if a ballot was rejected until 10 days after the election.

The ruling came after the state's Supreme Court earlier restricted mail-in voting to seniors, individuals with disabilities and people who will not physically be able to vote in person.

Judge Jerry Smith, a Ronald Reagan appointee, wrote in the majority opinion that requiring a new process allowing voters to correct mistakes would compromise the integrity of the ballots "as Texas officials are preparing for a dramatic increase of mail-in voting, driven by a global pandemic."

"Texas' strong interest in safeguarding the integrity of its elections from voter fraud far outweighs any burden the state's voting procedures place on the right to vote," he wrote. (However, mail-in voter fraud is virtually nonexistent.)

The ruling followed a lawsuit filed by two voters in 2019 after their ballots were rejected due to perceived signature mismatches. The lawsuit was joined by disability, veterans and youth groups, who argued that the rules violated the 14th Amendment.

Judge Garcia, a Bill Clinton appointee, earlier sided with the voters, ruling that the rules had violated certain voters' 14th Amendment rights.

Garcia said the state had created a "severe burden" without any "meaningful opportunity" to "cure" their ballot.

"As a result, those voters face complete disenfranchisement, and thus, their right to vote is at stake," he wrote.

Garcia's ruling required Secretary of State Ruth Hughs to inform county officials to compare signatures to those on file for the previous six years, attempt to notify voters about a pending rejection and allow them to correct the problem.

Voting rights groups involved in the lawsuit vowed to urge county officials to voluntarily inform voters about pending rejections.

"It will affect this 2020 election . . . I think the main thing we're trying to do now is notify counties that ballot boards are not required to give pre-election day notice, but they can," H. Drew Galloway, the executive director of MOVE Texas, told The Tribune. "We encourage them to follow the original intent of the lower courts here, so folks (whose ballots were rejected) can go vote in person or contest that decision."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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