AUSTIN (CN) — Texas’ Republican attorney general asked the state Supreme Court on Wednesday to halt election officials in five counties from allowing voters scared of the Covid-19 pandemic to claim a disability to vote by mail, citing election integrity and potential voter fraud.
Ken Paxton filed a petition for writ of mandamus regarding the efforts in Dallas, Cameron, El Paso, Harris and Travis counties, accusing county officials of misapplying state law. All five counties lean Democratic.
“In-person voting is the surest way to prevent voter fraud and guarantee that every voter is who they claim to be and has a fair opportunity to cast their vote,” Paxton said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that certain county election officials have refused to perform their duties and have instead unlawfully gone beyond the Legislature’s determination of who is eligible to vote by mail.”
Paxton said a disability is defined under the Texas Election Code as a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents a person from voting in person without needing personal assistance or of “injuring the voter’s health.”
“A voter ill with Covid-19 and who meets those requirements may apply for a ballot by mail,” Paxton said. “Fear of contracting Covid-19, however, is a nonphysical reaction to the current pandemic and does not amount to a sickness or physical condition that qualifies a voter to receive a ballot by mail.”
Paxton asked the court to make a decision within 14 days, citing the July 14 primary runoff election and its May 30 deadline for providing mail-in ballots to military and overseas applications. He said the counties’ efforts are unnecessary, that the state is already enacting voter safety measures during the pandemic.
“Just this week, the governor of Texas expanded the period for early voting by personal appearance in the upcoming July 14 elections,” the 39-page petition states. “And the Secretary of State has notified local officials that ‘early next week,’ her office will issue ‘detailed recommendations for protecting the health and safety of voters and election workers at the polls.’”
The dispute over mail-in ballots is complicated by a lawsuit filed by the Texas Democratic Party against the state in Travis County Court on March 20. The trial judge, Tim Sulak, granted a temporary injunction on April 15 that allows voters to claim disability if they wish to vote by mail. The judge said “there is an understandable need for some kind of clarity and some of uniformity” to ensure full and fair participation by voters. All five counties cited Sulak’s order in accepting disability claims for mail-in ballots.
Paxton has appealed and continues to instruct local officials that allowing such disability claims are illegal.
The Texas Democratic Party blasted Paxton for “attempting to get the Texas Supreme Court to prosecute Texans” who vote by mail.
“After a month of thousands of mail-in ballot requests sent by Texans who are under the age of 65, Paxton now wants to upset the election process,” said general counsel Chad Dunn. “Apparently, none of the counties agree with Ken Paxton’s view that everybody under age 65 has to vote in person during a pandemic, and the court shouldn’t either.”
Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippins-Poole acknowledged on May 5 a nonbinding opinion by Paxton’s office discouraging the practice in spite of Sulak’s temporary injunction, but said her office will not seek further proof or explanation if a mail-in ballot application claims a disability.
Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman recently was granted a $12 million request to expand the county’s mail-in ballot program so it could handle an absentee ballot for every voter in the county.
Paxton’s filing came one day after he warned Democratic leaders in Dallas, Travis and Bexar counties and the mayors of Austin and San Antonio to reduce Covid-19 restrictions on the wearing of face masks, holding religious services and the determination of what is an essential business. In a series of letters, Paxton warned the counties of lawsuits over their orders exceeding what is required by executive orders in place under Republican Governor Greg Abbott.
Paxton said Abbott’s orders “encourage” people to wear face masks while Dallas County requires anyone over the age of two. He also deemed illegal Austin’s orders that bar houses of worship from making hiring decisions based on an applicant’s sexual orientation or gender identity.