Texas Governor Defends Limit on Ballot Drop-Off Sites

Signs direct traffic at a ballot drop-off location in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 1, 2020. (Jay Janner /Austin American-Statesman via AP)

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Lawyers for Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott asked a federal judge Thursday to not block his order limiting absentee ballot drop-off locations to one per county, arguing Abbott has acted to expand voter access during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Eric Hudson with the Texas Attorney General’s Office pushed back on claims that Abbott’s Oct. 1 executive order amounts to voter suppression. He pointed to Abbott also ordering the start of early voting from Oct. 19 to Oct. 13 – an order that resulted in a separate lawsuit by fellow Republicans.

“We are talking about an order that actually expands voter access,” Hudson told U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman, a Barack Obama appointee, during the virtual hearing on Zoom. “What we are arguing about is who gets to decide what the expansion will look like.”

Abbott’s order requires absentee voters to hand their ballots in at each county’s now-single drop-off location to allow “poll watchers the opportunity to observe any activity conducted” for election security purposes.

Two individual voters, the League of United Latin American Citizens, its Texas chapter and the League of Women Voters of Texas sued within hours of the order, claiming Abbott is engaging in voter suppression in larger, Democrat-controlled counties by relying on phony election fraud fears. They contend absentee voters still must submit identification and sign a roster before handing in their ballot.

In Democrat-controlled Travis and Harris counties, there were 12 and four respective absentee drop-off locations open before Abbott’s order.

“They will have to travel further distances, face longer waits and risk exposure to Covid-19, in order to use the single ballot return location in their county,” the complaint stated. “And, if they are unwilling or unable to face these new burdens, they will have to rely on a hobbled postal mail system that has expressed a lack of confidence in its own ability to timely deliver the mail — and hope that their ballot will be delivered in time to be counted.”

The defense disputed claims by the plaintiffs that Abbott’s order had nothing to do with the pandemic, telling the judge Abbott’s authority to issue several emergency orders since March is given by the Texas Disaster Act. They said Abbott used that power to give absentee voters 40 more days to deliver their ballots and to override state law barring the delivery of absentee ballots by hand before Election Day.

“If the governor did not do that, we would not be here right now,” Hudson said. “It is important the court understands that.”

Representing LULAC, San Antonio attorney Luis Vera said the fears of election fraud have already been discredited and voters had already turned in their ballots for four days until Abbott’s order.

“The state of Texas wants one set of rules for [the] one party they represent and one set of rules for the others,” he said.

Attorney Chad Dunn, with Brazil & Dunn in Houston, asked the judge to issue a preliminary injunction to “preserve the status quo.” He cited federal courts’ reluctance to change the terms of an election so close to Election Day.

“This case is about more than drop-box locations in a county. It is about whether the public believes the results of the election will be honored,” he said.

Attorney John Devaney, with Perkins Coie in Washington, told Pitman the individual voter plaintiffs have standing in the case because of the risk they face voting at the polls and contracting Covid-19, and because they will have to travel further to reach their county’s one absentee drop-off location.

He argued that LULAC and the League of Women Voters have standing as organizations due to the burden of having to reallocate their resources at the last-minute to account for Abbott’s order.

“They will need to change their website, their educational materials and contact their new members” with the new information, Devaney said.

In response to the judge asking if the state also faces a burden if he decides to block Abbott’s order, Devaney responded the state’s burden to maintain the status quo would be smaller than that of the plaintiffs.

“Voters tend to wait until the end of an election to request a ballot. It’s not just procrastination,” Devaney said. “In an election this heated, voters want to wait. There’s going to be a surge of absentee votes … given the two-week period for the USPS, people are going to have to turn in their ballots because they don’t trust the Postal Service.”

Judge Pitman asked the plaintiffs if there was any difference between the drop-off locations closed by Abbott’s order and the still-operation sites in terms of election security.

Attorney Susan Hays, representing Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, responded the county’s shuttered annex locations are “typical business offices” that are more secure than other public places due to employees receiving election security training. She said they are “much more secure because they must show ID before handing over the ballot.”

Pitman said he would issue his ruling “as soon as possible” given the close proximity to Election Day. Early voting locations are scheduled to open on Oct. 13.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas tweeted during the hearing that the judge needs to end “this reckless attempt to suppress” voter rights, calling it “outrageous.”

“People with disabilities will face particular challenges, risk severe harm, and ultimately may be deterred from voting due to his decision to limit drop-off locations,” said Andre Segura, the group’s legal director.

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