Federal Judge Blocks Removal of Straight-Party Voting in Texas

LAREDO, Texas (CN) — Election Day lines stand to move a lot faster than they were expected to in Texas after a federal judge Friday blocked the state from enforcing a law that did away with straight-party voting.

Passed along party lines in 2017 by the Republican-majority Texas Legislature, HB 25 eliminated the option, starting Sept. 1 of this year, for voters to vote for all the Democrats or Republicans on the ballot by checking a single box.

In advocating for passage of the bill, its sponsor said straight-party voting discourages voters from researching all the candidates on the ballot, and takes their attention away from down-ballot candidates for offices that most directly affect them.

But Democrats claimed the bill was aimed at disenfranchising Black and Hispanic voters who tend to vote for Democrats.

Seeking to block enforcement of HB 25, the Democratic campaign committees of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House, the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans and Sylvia Bruni, chair of the Democratic Party in Webb County, sued Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs in August.

They claimed the bill violates the First and 14th Amendments and the Voting Rights Act because the state’s largest populations of Black Americans and Hispanics are in its most populous counties, which have the longest ballots. 

Sometimes the counties have as many as 95 candidates and measures to vote on, so these minority groups relied on straight-party voting more than white voters in smaller counties.

But straight-party voting was popular in Texas across all demographic and racial lines.

“During Texas’s 2018 general election, approximately two-thirds of voters—more than 5.6 million Texans—cast their votes using STV,” the Democrats said in their lawsuit.

The coronavirus is another reason not to do away with straight-ticket voting, Democrats argued in their lawsuit.

“The risk of coronavirus infection adds an unjustifiable health risk to increasing the wait times for these same voters, as African American and Hispanic Texans experience increased rates of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from the virus as compared to white Texans,” the complaint states.

U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo agreed with the challengers that the longer the wait time, the higher the risk of coronavirus transmission. And she found the pandemic prevents counties from taking steps to cut down the wait times that would result from doing away with straight-party voting.

In other years, Marmelejo wrote, election officials might try to reduce wait times by increasing the number of voting machines at polling places. But given medical experts’ guidance that people stay six feet apart, she said, that is not feasible.

“Indeed, social distancing may even require decreasing the number of voting machines at polling places to keep voters safe,” Marmolejo wrote in a 44-page order.

Texas claimed U.S. Supreme Court precedent bars changing election rules on the eve of elections, citing the high court’s 5-4 ruling on April 6 in Republican National Committee v. Democratic National Committee that nixed a federal judge’s order for Wisconsin’s counties to accept mail-in ballots until April 13, six days after the state’s primary elections.

The majority said the court’s order had fundamentally altered Wisconsin’s primary elections because it would have called for another order blocking the release of the results for six days after election day.

The Texas case is much different, Marmolejo said.

“The requested injunction would not impose such an onerous burden on election officials and merely allows a century-old practice to remain in place for one more election,” she wrote.

“Yes we are nearing the election,” she continued, “but we are not so close as to deny the plaintiffs the ability to raise a challenge seeking to maintain the status quo.”

Texas officials also claimed HB 25 will reduce voter confusion and reduce “unintentional roll-off” in which voters vote in the partisan races, but not the nonpartisan ones, which are typically at the end of the ballot.

The judge did not buy either of those claims. 

“In fact, eliminating a practice that Texan voters have been accustomed to for 100 years is more likely to cause confusion among voters than eliminating it would,” she wrote.

The lawsuit is the second one this year Democrats filed challenging HB 25 that went before Judge Marmolejo.

The first one was filed in March by the Texas Democratic Party,  the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign fundraising organizations of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate Democrats, Webb County Democrat Chair Bruni and Jessica Tiedt, a Democratic candidate for the Texas House of Representatives.

Marmolejo dismissed the case in June without prejudice, finding the challengers lacked standing because their anticipated injuries from the state doing away with the option of straight-party voting, namely lower turnout from Democratic voters, depended on the decisions of voters who were not involved in the litigation.

In the second lawsuit, the Texas Democratic Party and Tiedt were dropped as plaintiffs and the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans was added.

The increased severity of the pandemic and the attendant risk for in-person voters likely played a role in Marmolejo’s decision to block HB 25 this time around.

South Texas became a hotspot for Covid-19 in July, overwhelming hospitals and forcing them to bring in out-of-state nurses to deal with a surge of patients sick with the respiratory illness and clinging to life on respirators.

The federal courthouses in Laredo, Brownsville, McAllen, cities on the U.S.-Mexico border, are all closed to the public to prevent staff from being exposed to the virus.

Marmolejo granted the Democrats a preliminary injunction, enjoining Hughs from enforcing HB 25.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is expected to promptly appeal the order to the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans.

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