HOUSTON (CN) — The Texas Supreme Court stepped into a political firestorm Wednesday, blocking the chief of elections in the state’s biggest county from proceeding with his plans to send mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters.
The all-Republican court granted the Harris County Republican Party’s request for a stay to stop Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, a Democrat, from mailing the applications to the county’s 2.37 million registered voters.
The Harris County GOP is represented by Houston attorney Jared Woodfill, its former chairman.
“We are thankful that the Texas Supreme Court is preventing a rogue clerk from violating the Texas Election Code,” Woodfill said. “It is shocking that the clerk of the largest county in Texas did not appreciate that his actions were illegal, compromised the integrity of elections in Harris County, and created an atmosphere for voter fraud.”
The outrage goes to the top of the state’s Republican establishment.
Governor Greg Abbott, a former Texas Supreme Court justice and Texas attorney general, says by law only Texans who ask for absentee ballot applications can receive them.
“Harris County’s scheme can lead to voter fraud & compromise election results,” Abbott tweeted Monday.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Hollins over his plans on Monday in Houston, Harris County’s seat, and Hollins agreed to hold off on his blanket mailing plan and let the trial court decide if he can do it.
Hollins said in an email the high court’s stay “simply affirms what we already agreed to” and he will continue mailing applications to “voters aged 65 and over who are automatically eligible to vote by mail.”
For the November elections, Texas is one of just six states requiring voters to provide a reason for requesting an absentee ballot. To qualify, Texans must be over 65, in jail, out of the county or disabled. Being pregnant or sick are qualifying disabilities.
While the Texas Supreme Court ruled in May that fear of contracting Covid-19 does not constitute a disability under the Texas Election Code, it said voters with underlying conditions putting them at risk of dying from the illness can vote by mail.
As the Houston region struggles to get Covid-19 cases under control, Hollins believes voting by mail is the safest method.
“It’s also safer and more convenient for the other voters in Harris County because that’s one less person creating a long line in front of them and one less person they could be exposed to at a voting center,” he told Houston’s NPR affiliate Monday.
Paxton said in court filings Hollins’ plan could result in absentee ballot applications being mailed to people who have died or moved out of the county without notifying Hollins they have registered to vote elsewhere.
“These excess applications will become ripe material for voter fraud,” Paxton’s lawsuit states.
But Hollins says mail-in voting fraud is not a major concern because anyone who did it is committing a felony and risking a lengthy prison sentence, and they would have to take the ballot from the mail and forge the voter’s signature skillfully enough to fool signature checkers.
“That’s hard to do one time. To do that the hundreds or thousands of times it would take to sway an election, it is just not realistic that would take place,” Hollins told NPR.
The Texas Supreme Court stayed Hollins’ mailing plan pending its ruling on the Harris County Republican Party’s mandamus petition. The party seeks an order barring Hollins from mailing the applications to any voter who has not requested one.
Due to cost-cutting measures Louis DeJoy, a Republican ally of President Donald Trump, has taken at the Postal Service since he was appointed postmaster general in May, many voters don’t trust the Postal Service to get their ballots in on time – in Texas they must be postmarked by Election Day and received by county clerks the next day.
Hollins said Harris County residents will have ample opportunity for early voting if they want to avoid long lines on Election Day. He said there will be 120 early vote locations, triple the number the county has ever had for a presidential election.
The poll site expansion is being funded with $17 million Harris County recently approved for election support. The funds will also be used to hire up to 12,000 poll workers and provide extended voting hours, the Houston Chronicle reported.
With 4.7 million residents, Harris County is the biggest in Texas.