AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – Texans should be allowed to mail in their ballots for the May primary runoffs because social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is effectively a disability that prevents voting at the polls, the Texas Democratic Party claims in a lawsuit filed Friday.
As testing becomes widely available in Texas, the number of confirmed cases jumped from 161 on Thursday to 194 on Friday, according to the Department of State Health Services. But Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center says there are 394 confirmed cases in Texas.
Governor Greg Abbott on Thursday issued a statewide shutdown order for bars, restaurants, schools, gyms and massage parlors until April 4, and ordered Texans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.
But Abbott’s order is likely to be extended for weeks and maybe months to keep the virus from spreading and unleashing the nightmare scenario of the state’s hospitals being overwhelmed by gravely ill people who need respirators.
Abbott issued a proclamation on Friday night postponing the May 26 runoff elections until July 14.
“Holding the runoff in May would cause the congregation of large gatherings of people in confined spaces and cause numerous election workers to come into close proximity with others. This would threaten the health and safety of many Texans,” Abbott said in a statement.
The proclamation says nothing about voting by mail.
The Texas Democratic Party wants to ensure the more than 16.2 million registered voters in Texas can cast their ballots for the May 26 runoff elections and practice the “social distancing” recommended by health officials to head off the pandemic.
The party and its Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa sued Secretary of State Ruth Hughs on Friday in Travis County Court, seeking a declaration the Texas Election Code “allows any eligible voter, regardless of age and physical condition, to request, receive and have counted, a mail-in ballot, if they believe they should practice social distancing” to stop the virus from spreading.
Represented by Chad Dunn of Austin, the Democrats also seek an injunction ordering Hughs to accept mailed ballots.
Hinojosa said Democrats filed the lawsuit after meeting with members of the Texas Republican Party on Thursday.
“We have had conversations with election administrators, local county officials, state legislators, and Texas Republicans because protecting our democracy is incredibly important. Conversations with Texas Republicans fell apart last night because Republicans have no plan,” Hinojosa said in a statement.
“No Texan should have to worry about risking their health in order to exercise their right to vote. We must act before it’s too late,” he added.
The lawsuit also names Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir as a defendant.
Hugh’s office did not immediately respond Friday night when asked to comment on the lawsuit.
The most high-profile runoff in Texas is the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in which MJ Hegar, a retired Air Force pilot, is going up against longtime state Senator Royce West of Dallas.
The winner will take on Republican John Cornyn in November, who is expected to easily retain the seat he’s held since 2002.
Runoffs will also be held for 14 of the state’s 36 congressional district elections.
The Democrats’ lawsuit follows up on a letter the ACLU of Texas sent Abbott and Hughs on Thursday, urging them not to let the Covid-19 measures delay the election and give all registered Texas voters the option of voting by mail.
“There is sufficient time to prepare for a successful election in spite of Covid-19, if the State and counties begin preparing now,” the letter states.
The ACLU also wants the state to keep polling places open for the primaries, extend early voting to two weeks and make in-person early voting available on weekends.
State regulators say Texas has 2.9 hospital beds per 1,000 residents, according to the Texas Tribune.
Abbott said in a town hall Thursday that hospitals across the state are preparing to set up medical tents should bed-capacity be exceeded. He said he is also looking at opening recently shuttered hospitals.