Texas Governor Sued Over Order Limiting Ballot Drop Box Sites

A sign indicates a drive-through ballot drop off location in Austin, Texas, on Thursday Oct. 1, 2020, shortly after Governor Greg Abbott issued an order restricting such sites. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

AUSTIN (CN) — Civil rights groups and two absentee voters claim in a lawsuit filed late Thursday that Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order limiting absentee ballot drop-off sites to only one per county amounts to last-minute voter suppression that targets vulnerable and minority voters. 

The League of United Latin American Citizens, its Texas chapter, and the League of Women Voters of Texas sued the Republican governor in federal court in Austin and are seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. 

Abbott’s Oct. 1 order requires absentee voters to hand deliver their ballots at each county’s single drop-off location to allow “poll watchers the opportunity to observe any activity conducted” for election security purposes. Critics immediately blasted the election security justification as phony due to voters already being required to show identification and signing a roster before delivering their sealed ballot.

“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 20-page complaint states. “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. Inevitably, for some absentee voters, their hope will be misplaced, and their ballot will not be counted.” 

The plaintiffs include absentee voters Ralph Edelbach, 82, from Cypress, and Barbara Mason, 71, from Austin. Edelbach lives in Harris County, which includes the city of Houston and has a population of more than 4.7 million. It is also a majority-minority county, where more than 40% of residents identify as Latino and 20% identify as Black.

There were 12 absentee drop-off locations open in the county before Abbott’s closure order and the closest drop-off location to Edelbach was 16 miles away from his home. 

“That location has been forced to close by the governor’s order, and now, the nearest drop-off location to Mr. Edelbach will be about 36 miles away,” the complaint states. “As a result, if he wants to drop his ballot off in person — which is his preference — Mr. Edelbach will have to drive nearly an hour-and-a-half-roundtrip in order to do so.” 

Mason lives in Travis County, which operated four drive-through absentee ballot drop-off locations before Abbott’s order.

“Texas’s limit of one-per-county for absentee ballot drop-off locations will have a disproportionate impact on absentee-eligible Texas LULAC members and other Latino voters living in densely populated counties like Harris and Travis, and in large but geographically dispersed counties like Webb, who wish to cast an absentee ballot without subjecting themselves to the risk of contracting COVID-19 or the risk that their mailed ballot will arrive too late to be counted,” the complaint states.

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins blasted Abbott’s order at a press conference Friday morning, stating absentee voting is the most convenient way for senior, high-risk and disabled voters to submit ballots. He called Abbott’s order “not only prejudicial, but dangerous” for absentee voters.

“This haphazard decision by Governor Abbott to change the rules of the game at the last moment is confusing to voters and will serve to suppress Texas votes, plain and simple,” he told reporters. “This decision should not stand. Harris County stretches over 2,000 square miles. To drive from the northwest part of the county to our election headquarters – where we are standing at this very moment – is over fifty miles. Over in Brewster County, you have to drive over 100 miles to get from the southern part of the county to the county seat of Alpine.”

Hollins added that he can reopen the 11 closed sites at the “drop of the dime” in the wake of Friday’s lawsuit.

Grace Chimene, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, called Abbott’s order “plain and simple” voter suppression.

“In a presidential election year with massive voter interest during a deadly pandemic, Texas should be focused on expanding safe voting options this year,” she said in a statement. “But instead of protecting our most vulnerable voters — those with disabilities and those 65 and over — and ensuring their safe access to the ballot, our state has erected higher barriers for voters. It’s shameful.”

John Wittman, the governor’s spokesman, responded to the lawsuit by reiterating the order only pertains to absentee ballots.

“The additional time provided for those who want to submit their mail-in ballot in person is sufficient to accommodate the limited number of people who have traditionally used that voting strategy,” Whitman said Friday.

That characterization is at odds with the substantially-higher demand this election for absentee ballots due to the pandemic. Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has already sued Harris County to stop its plan to send millions of 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. The case is currently on appeal before the Texas Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments by the state on Wednesday that county clerks are greatly limited on what they can control during early voting.

Due to the pandemic, Abbott previously ordered the extension of early voting in Texas, moving its start date from Oct. 19 to Oct. 13. A group of Republican legislators challenged the move, suing Abbott on Sept. 23. They claim the governor is exceeding his authority by refusing to call a special session of the Texas Legislature to decide the matter.

The trial court is expected to rule quickly on Friday’s lawsuit, as early voting is scheduled to begin on Oct. 13 for the Nov. 3 general election.

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