AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — A federal judge late Friday blocked Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Covid-19 order limiting absentee ballot drop-off boxes to one per county, concluding the closure violates the equal protection rights of absentee voters in larger, more populated counties so close to the Nov. 3 election.
U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman — an appointee of Barack Obama — issued the preliminary injunction against Abbott’s Oct. 1 order, writing that it violates voters’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
“Since Governor Abbott closed previously-sanctioned centers, there is confusion: (1) confusion resulting from a voter trying to cast a ballot at a center she thought was open — because it used to be — but which is now closed or (2) confusion resulting from a voter trying to cast a ballot at a center that she thought was recently closed but is now open again,” the 46-page opinion states.
“Between these two choices, the court is of the opinion that the second scenario is the more favorable and just choice: it is the only choice that restores the status quo and likely reduces confusion on the eve of an election, and it results in a greater chance that a ballot can be cast at a ballot return center that was previously available to voters — after being vetted as safe and secure and publicly touted as a viable option to exercise voting rights.”
Two individual voters, the League of United Latin American Citizens, its Texas chapter and the League of Women Voters of Texas sued Abbott, claiming the order amounts to voter suppression in larger, Democrat-controlled counties.
They contend Abbott’s claim of voter security fears are phony, that little evidence exists of election fraud and that absentee voters must still submit identification and sign a roster before dropping off their ballot.
The judge’s order will most notably affect Travis and Harris counties, who had operated 4 and 12 respective drop-off sites before Abbott’s closure order. Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said on Oct. 2 that he can reopen the county’s closed sites “at the drop of a dime” if the lawsuit is successful.
Pitman agreed with the plaintiffs that the closures forces older and disabled voters in such counties to travel farther “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 and have it counted.”
The judge also agreed with the plaintiffs’ concerns about voters being disenfranchised with the U.S. Postal Service’s well-publicized issues with delivering ballots on time to election officials.
“Since Texas state voting deadlines are currently ‘incongruous’ with USPS guidelines on how much time is needed to timely deliver ballots, absentee voters who request mail-in ballots within the Texas timeframe cannot be assured that their votes will be counted,” the opinion states. “[T]he Oct. 1 order imposes a burden on an already vulnerable voting population that is somewhere between ‘slight’ and ‘severe.’”
Pitman said Abbott’s order could have been justified in the face of that burden if a “relevant and legitimate” state interest — in this case election security — was sufficiently weighted to justify the burden.
“The state advances only vague interest in promoting ballot security and uniformity, and alleviating voter confusion,” the opinion states. “[T]he court finds that defendants have not presented any credible evidence that their interests outweigh these burdens.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, LULAC, the League of Women’s Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas did not immediately respond to email messages requesting comment late Friday evening. Abbott is expected to appeal.
Harris County and Travis County officials could not be reached for comment after office hours.
Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, applauded the judge’s “common sense order” that follows established law.
“[He] stopped the governor from making up election rules after the election started,” Hinojosa said in a statement. “Frankly, it ought to be a shock to all of us that such a ruling is even required.”
The judge’s ruling comes one day after he held an hours-long virtual hearing on Zoom in consideration of the preliminary injunction. Abbott’s attorneys argued the governor has actually acted to expand voter access during the Covid-19 pandemic, not suppress voters.
They reminded the judge that Abbott also ordered the start of early voting up to Oct. 13 from Oct. 19 — an order that was deeply unpopular with Texas Republicans, many of whom sued him for it.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Luis Vera of San Antonio disagreed, saying the Texas GOP “wants one set of rules for [the] one party they represent and one set of rules for the others.”