Voters, voting rights groups sue Gov. Greg Abbott over order to close ballot drop-off locations

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas -- Voting rights advocates and civic groups rushed to the courthouse Friday in a bid to block Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's Oct. 1 order allowing Texas counties no more than one drop-off location for voters casting absentee ballots, 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 Texas and national Leagues of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas and two Texas voters asked a federal judge in Austin to overturn the governor's 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 impact of this eleventh-hour decision 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 for the groups argued. "It also results in predictable disproportionate impacts on minority communities that [were] already hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis."

Unprecedented numbers of Texas voters are requesting mail-in ballots for the highly charged election underway 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.

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The lawsuit 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.

In Harris County, 12 absentee ballot locations had been established at county clerk office annexes and NRG Arena. Now, only the location at NRG Arena remains.

Harris County voters can drop off mail-in ballots at Gate 8 at NRG between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. with a valid I.D.

"This haphazard decision by Gov. Abbott to change the rules of the game at the last moment is confusing to voters and will serve to suppress Texas votes, plain and simple," Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said Friday. "This decision should not stand."

"I know that for many voters, this situation might be frustrating and might feel like one more hurdle to overcome your access to the ballot," he said. "The truth is that it is. Make no mistake, this is intentional. This is being done to make it more difficult for you to vote."

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.

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.

Harris County started accepting completed applications Sept. 28, and had collected 39 as of Thursday evening. Travis County opened four locations Oct. 1.

Gov. Abbott's office issued the following statement Friday:
"The Governor has not limited voting-instead he has expanded access to voting. Before the Governor's executive order, Texans who wanted to vote by mail could either mail their ballot or submit it in person on Election Day only. Because of COVID-19, the governor's executive order increased the time period during which voters can submit their mail in ballot in person to include anytime leading up to Election Day. That time period did not exist under current law. Moreover, the only ballots subject to this order are mail in ballots. Most of those ballots are in fact 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."

Disclosure: The League of Women Voters has been a financial supporter 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.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans - and engages with them - about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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