County officials in Houston and Austin slammed the abrupt change as blatant voter suppression.
AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered counties Thursday to only have one absentee ballot drop-off location each, resulting in the closure of multiple sites in Democratic-controlled counties that have promoted absentee voting due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The five-page executive order requires absentee voters to hand deliver their ballots at the single location in each county to allow “poll watchers the opportunity to observe any activity conducted” for election security purposes. Absentee voters will be required to show identification and sign a roster before delivering their sealed ballot.
The order will take effect on Friday and modifies an earlier order by Abbott that waives a state requirement that absentee ballots be dropped off only on Election Day.
“As we work to preserve Texans’ ability to vote during the Covid-19 pandemic, we must take extra care to strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state,” Abbott said in a statement. “These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting.”
Abbott’s order results in the closure of multiple ballot drop-off sites in Harris and Travis counties. Harris County, where Houston is located, had planned on accepting ballots at 11 county clerk office locations and NRG Arena. Travis County, home of the state capital Austin, had planned on accepting ballots at four drive-through county office locations.
Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins did not immediately respond to an email message requesting comment. Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir told reporters she is considering legal action against Abbott’s order, saying it is a “deliberate attempt to manipulate” the election.
Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa bluntly called Abbott and state Republicans “cowards” and “cheaters” for trying to change the rules at the last minute.
“Make no mistake, democracy itself is on the ballot,” he said in a statement. “Every Texan must get out and vote these cowards out. Governor Abbott and Texas Republicans are scared. We are creating a movement that will beat them at the ballot box on November 3, and there’s nothing these cheaters can do about it.”
Travis County Democratic Party Chair Katie Naranjo said the order amounts to “blatant voter suppression.”
“The @TexasGOP is scare of the people of Texas exercising their constitutional right to vote,” she tweeted. “Shame on @GovAbott for the deceitful timing of this announcement.”
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo – the county’s chief executive, not a judicial officer – bluntly said a party “whose election strategy is to suppress turnout does not deserve to win.”
“Harris County is bigger than the state of Rhode Island, and we’re supposed to have 1 site? This isn’t security, it’s suppression,” she tweeted. “Mail ballot voters shouldn’t have to drive 30 miles to drop off their ballot, or rely on a mail system that’s facing cutbacks.”
Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Hollins on Aug. 31 in state court, seeking to stop his office from sending absentee ballot applications to all of the county’s registered voters. The trial court and then the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston rejected Paxton’s claims.
Arguing for Paxton, Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins told the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court during oral arguments Wednesday that the law greatly limits what county clerks can control during early voting. Hawkins said setting the air conditioning in a room at a level at which people could enter and submit early voting ballots is included in a clerk’s power to conduct early voting, as is printing out requested absentee ballot applications and buying them stamps.
Abbott previously ordered the extension of the beginning of early voting in Texas from Oct. 19 to Oct. 13 due to the pandemic. A group of Republican legislators challenged the move, suing Abbott on Sept. 23 directly with the Texas Supreme Court. They claim the governor is exceeding his authority by refusing to call a special session of the Texas Legislature to decide the matter.
Texans have until Oct. 5 to register to vote for the Nov. 3 general election.