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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Election officials ask federal court to block mail-in voting provisions of new Texas law

The two election officials are challenging provisions that created criminal and civil penalties for soliciting vote by mail applications.

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (CN) — An election administrator and a volunteer deputy registrar asked a federal court in Texas Tuesday for a preliminary injunction in their lawsuit seeking to block provisions of a new elections law in the state that prohibits public officials from soliciting vote by mail ballot applications. 

Isabel Longoria, elections administrator for Harris County, and Cathy Morgan, a deputy registrar in Williamson and Travis counties, arguing in their 24-page motion that the mail-in voting provisions violate their First Amendment right to free speech.

The motion comes 18 days after the plaintiffs filed their federal lawsuit against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and district attorneys in Harris, Williamson and Travis Counties, seeking to block provisions of Senate Bill 1 that created criminal and civil penalties for soliciting vote by mail applications.

A person found to have violated the vote by mail solicitation rules faces a mandatory minimum of six months in jail and up to $10,000 in fines. 

Proponents of the law, including Attorney General Ken Paxton, have argued that the law is necessary to prevent election fraud. More specifically, they claim that provisions against sending unsolicited votes by mail applications were added to prevent ballot harvesting. 

Longoria and Morgan argue that the law — passed during a special legislative session in September — creates a content-based restriction on their right to discuss vote by mail applications. In the complaint, the plaintiffs argue that they are not allowed to encourage or direct eligible voters to request an application to vote by mail because that could be seen as soliciting. But discouraging voters from applying to vote by mail is not prohibited.

The officials assert that the restriction does not protect a specific state interest worthy of suppressing speech. 

“Senate Bill 1 subjects me to criminal prosecution for encouraging eligible voters to vote by mail so they may participate in our democracy, an option they have under Texas law,” said Longoria in a statement. 

The plaintiffs are asking U.S. District Court Judge Fred Biery, a Clinton appointee, to grant the injunction by Feb. 14, so that election officials may conduct their duties without fear of violating the law. 

The motion detailed how the new law has impacted Longoria's work in Harris County.

“Longoria has planned to engage in speeches and hold voter-outreach events but has been unable to do so for fear of criminal prosecution and civil penalties,” the motion states. 

The law, which took effect at the beginning of this month, made sweeping changes to how elections are run in the Lone Star State. It bans drive-through and 24-hour voting, both innovations made by Harris County — Texas’ largest county and home to Houston — to increase voter turnout and limit the spread of Covid-19. Additionally, the law creates criminal penalties for election officials who refuse to admit poll watchers, sets new ID requirements for people applying to vote by mail and limits poll workers' ability to help voters complete their ballot. 

While the lawsuit filed by Longoria and Morgan takes specific provisions affecting them to task, several other lawsuits have been filed against other parts of the law. 

Before the law was signed by Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott, Latino rights groups across the state filed two federal lawsuits claiming the law violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs in those cases argue that voters who are disabled or do not speak English will not be able to receive the proper help while filling out their ballot. 

In November, the Department of Justice filed suit against the state over the law, arguing that it harms disabled and non-English speaking voters by not allowing poll workers to provide needed assistance.

A ruling has yet to be issued in any of the cases challenging SB 1. The March primary will be the first election during which Texans are subject to the new law.

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Categories / Government, Law, Politics

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