Texas legal battles over voting could have an impact on election

CAMPAIGN LIMITS: Election workers accept mail in ballot from voters at drive-through mail ballot drop off site at NRG Stadium on Oct. 7, in Houston, Texas. Gov. Gregg Abbott issued an executive order limiting each Texan county to one mail ballot drop-off site due to the pandemic. Go Nakamura/Getty Images/Tribune News Service

HOUSTON (Tribune News Service) – When retired elementary school teacher Marilyn Wolfe and her husband tried to drop off their completed ballots at a county office outside Houston a week ago, they were turned away.

Wolfe, 82, said a clerk explained to them and several other couples trying to deliver ballots that they had requested and received by mail that the completed ballots could not be accepted at the site – one of a dozen in the county – because of an order from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. The governor's last-minute proclamation had limited each of the state's 254 counties, including Houston's Democrat-led Harris County, the nation's third largest by population, to a single ballot drop site.

A federal judge overruled Abbott that day, but by the next day the state had successfully appealed to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"We were just totally flabbergasted," Wolfe said.

Texans are supposed to be able to vote several ways. Early in-person voting started this week. Those who are out of state are eligible to vote absentee. Certain in-state voters can have ballots mailed to them, including those who are disabled and 65 or older. Those ballots may be mailed back to election officials or dropped with poll workers at designated sites, as the Wolfes were attempting to do.

But ongoing legal maneuvers by Republican state officials have resulted in frustration at the polls amid record early turnout. Abbott and others say they're trying to guard against possible voter fraud, but voting rights groups and Democrats complain of voter suppression – long a problem for minorities in Texas – and they worry the actions could tilt the outcome of the presidential election.

Texas was one of nine mostly Southern states barred for decades from changing voting laws without federal approval under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down provisions of the act in 2013, Texas Republicans have attempted to redistrict and to impose stricter voter identification legislation, prompting lawsuits alleging voter suppression.

Abbott has also refused to mandate masks at the polls during the COVID-19 pandemic, potentially further tamping down the vote. And Republican leaders have fought straight ticket voting, which would have reduced the time voters spend casting in-person ballots, and have unsuccessfully tried to block curbside voting and online voter registration. Republicans have also fought one another over voting restrictions: When Abbott ordered early voting to start a week earlier than scheduled because of the pandemic, other state GOP leaders unsuccessfully sued to stop him.

When Harris County, the largest in the state by population with nearly 2.5 million registered voters, tried to mail ballots to 1.9 million people eligible to vote by mail who had not requested mail-in ballots, the state appealed and the Texas Supreme Court ruled against the county. Harris County also offered curbside voting at 10 sites for the first time, which Texas GOP groups sued to block, appealing this week to the state Supreme Court.

The latest statewide ballot fight started this month when Abbott ordered counties to limit themselves to a single site where voters can drop ballots that have been mailed to them, arguing it would prevent voter fraud.

The governor claimed the restrictions "will help stop attempts at illegal voting." His order was in line with efforts by President Donald Trump and Republican officials across the country to cast doubt on the security of mailed ballots.

Although there have been cases of voter fraud in Texas, including ones involving recent arrests, they have been rare, small-scale efforts to influence local elections. Opponents of the governor's order argue that it was designed to frustrate voters in and around the state's largest cities, which in recent years have become Democratic strongholds, chiefly Harris County, larger in area than Rhode Island and with nearly five times the population, 4.7 million people.

"To propose only a single, secure drop-off location for a county of our size during a pandemic is ludicrous," Lina Hidalgo, the county judge – a Texas term for the chief executive – said in a statement. "... Abbott's move is transparently about suppression, not security. It is also part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to confuse voters, discourage voter participation and degrade public confidence in our elections."

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On Oct. 9, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman – an Obama-era nominee based in Austin – overturned Abbott's order, writing that, "By limiting ballot return centers to one per county, older and disabled voters living in Texas's largest and most populous counties must travel further distances to more crowded ballot return centers where they would be at an increased risk of being infected by the coronavirus in order to exercise their right to vote."

The next day, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a request in federal appeals court to stay the judge's order, arguing that it "undermines our election security, disrupts the democratic process, and will only lead to voter confusion."

A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court, all Trump appointees, granted Paxton's request on Tuesday. While the groups that sued may request a hearing before the entire 5th Circuit Court or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, they don't expect relief before Nov. 3. A Texas state judge ruled in their favor this week, but the federal appeals court's decision is still binding.

"The law is gone. It's party politics and power," said Luis Vera Jr., an attorney for one of the groups that sued, the League of United Latin American Citizens, noting Texas'Republican leaders "know they can drag this out."

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