Texas Appeals Court OKs Plan to Send Ballot Applications to All Harris County Voters

Harris County election clerk Nora Martinez, left, helps a voter June 29 in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

HOUSTON (CN) — The elections chief of Texas’ biggest county Friday moved closer to his goal of sending absentee ballot applications to all its registered voters when an appellate court approved the plan.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, sued Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, a Democrat, on Aug. 31, seeking an injunction to block Hollins from sending the applications to the county’s 2.4 million registered voters.

The litigation is one of more than 30 voting-related lawsuits pending in courts across the U.S. And it is not over as Paxton will undoubtedly appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.

Since Hollins announced the mass mailing initiative in late August, he has said he simply wants to give voters information about their rights.

He also says voting by mail is the safest way to vote and each person who does so will be one less person who could expose others to Covid-19 at the polls or be exposed themselves.

The state argues Hollins could walk some voters into a felony, punishable by up to two years in jail, by confusing them they are eligible to vote by mail when they are not.

Texas is one of five states this election cycle requiring voters to have an excuse to vote by mail. To qualify, one must be 65 or older, in jail, disabled or out of their home county.

Texas Elections Director Keith Ingram testified at a Sept. 9 hearing he believes voters will be confused even though the mailer clearly states the eligibility guidelines for casting an absentee ballot, and includes this disclaimer in red type, “You do not qualify as ‘disabled’ just because you fear contracting Covid-19.”

Though the applications can be printed on the Texas secretary of state’s website, and organizations and individuals are free to distribute them, the state said Hollins’ plan to send them to all registered voters is unprecedented for a county elections chief and, unlike applications provided by other parties, would give voters the false impression they qualify given that they’re coming from a county clerk.

“My experience is that voters don’t read instructions, they just try to fill in blanks,” Ingram testified.

Harris County District Judge R.K. Sandill gave Hollins’ plan his blessing Sept. 11, finding nothing in the Texas Election Code bars Hollins from distributing the applications.

Paxton appealed to the Texas 14th Court of Appeals in Houston. A three-judge panel of the court Friday affirmed Sandill’s order and refused to stop the applications from going out.

“The State failed to meet its burden of showing that mailing the applications will result in irreparable injury,” the judges wrote in a unanimous 11-page order

“The injury alleged by the State is at best speculative,” the order continues. “The State’s argument is based on mere conjecture; there is, in this record, no proof that voters will intentionally violate the Election Code and no proof that voters will fail to understand the mailer and intentionally commit a felony, or be aided by the election official in doing so.” 

The Texas Supreme Court on Sept. 15 imposed a stay at Paxton’s urging, barring Hollins from mailing any unsolicited vote-by-mail applications until the 14th Court of Appeals ruled on the case, and it resolves any petition for review.

“We’re now calling on the Texas Supreme Court to lift its stay so we can get back to preserving democracy in Harris County,” Hollins said in a statement Friday.

Paxton said late Friday he will be filing a petition for review with the Texas Supreme Court shortly.

“The Harris County Clerk knowingly decided to violate Texas election law and eschewed his duty to protect the integrity of our democratic process,” Paxton said. “I commend the Texas Supreme Court’s decision earlier this week putting that unlawful plan on hold, and I look forward to demonstrating to the Court how Hollins’ plan violates Texas law.” 

Harris County, the country’s third most populous county, has more registered voters than 24 states.

Despite the litigation, in which both sides have accused each other of voter suppression, Ingram said he applauds Hollins for taking steps to make voting easier for what is expected to be a historic turnout in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

The county will offer drive-through voting at NRG Park, a sprawling property that houses the Houston Texans’ stadium, where election workers will hand voters tablets with ballots loaded onto them after they pull into a parking spot.

Hollins said the county will also have 120 early vote sites, triple the number it has ever had for a presidential election. And the early polls will be open for 24 hours on Oct. 29.

On Election Day, Hollins says, there will be a record 800 polling places. And his staff has developed an app where voters can see the locations closest to them and how long the line is at each one.

Hollins, a 34-year-old personal injury attorney, took office in June upon appointment by county officials after his predecessor Diane Trautman resigned for health reasons. He is getting a crash course in election administration, work he had no experience with before his appointment.

Happy with his interim role, he’s said he does not intend to run for the position the next time it comes up for election.

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