AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s order restricting counties to just one early drop-off site for absentee ballots was upheld Tuesday by the Texas Supreme Court, which found that, overall, Abbott has greatly expanded voting access in response to the pandemic.
Abbott’s Oct. 1 proclamation incensed Democrats in their strongholds of El Paso, Austin, Dallas and Houston. They complained the Republican governor’s claims he limited drop-off sites to protect the integrity of election results made no sense given that voters have to show their IDs to election officials and sign a roster before dropping off their ballots.
Judge Lina Hidalgo, the head of the governing body of Harris County — which includes the city of Houston — said some voters would have to drive 60 miles round trip to deliver their ballots when prior to Abbott’s order the county had 12 drop-off sites.
“Harris County is bigger than the state of Rhode Island, and we're supposed to have one site? This isn't security, it's suppression,” said Hidalgo, a Democrat.
The League of United Latin American Citizens and League of Women Voters of Texas quickly challenged the order in federal court and won an injunction, only to have the injunction stayed and Abbott’s order upheld by a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit.
In a unanimous opinion by three appointees of President Donald Trump, the panel pointed out Abbott had issued another proclamation on July 27 in which he suspended rules in the Texas Election Code to expand voting access due to the pandemic.
Abbott’s July order extended the early voting period by six days and allowed counties to accept absentee ballot drop-offs for 40 days starting Sept. 19, instead of just on Election Day.
“How this expansion of voting opportunities burdens anyone’s right to vote is a mystery,” U.S. Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan wrote for the New Orleans-based appellate court.
The matter appeared to be settled until two more left-leaning groups, Common Cause Texas and the Anti-Defamation League, filed suit in state court and obtained an injunction from Travis County District Tim Sulak.
Sulak found limiting counties to one drop-off site would needlessly increase voters’ risk of contracting Covid-19 and burden their right to vote by forcing them to travel long distances and wait in long lines to cast their ballots.
Abbott turned to the Texas Supreme Court on Oct. 23 after an appellate court affirmed Sulak’s injunction
Despite the twists and turns, Abbott’s order has remained in effect since he issued it Oct. 1.
And the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday laid to rest any Democratic hopes more drop-off sites could be opened in the last week of early voting, which ends Oct. 30.
The all-Republican high court found lower courts had improperly treated Abbott’s latest proclamation as a severe restriction on voting and subjected it to strict scrutiny, faulting the state for not rebutting plaintiffs’ experts claims ballot integrity concerns were unfounded, and it made sense to have multiple drop-off sites in the pandemic.
“This was error. Any burden on voting rights arising from the October Proclamation was not a severe burden, and the proclamation is clearly constitutional when subjected to the appropriate degree of scrutiny,” the court wrote in an unsigned unanimous 17-page opinion.
The challengers argued more drop-off sites are needed because the Postal Service may not deliver their voters absentee ballots in time to be counted, and the Postal Service itself is running ads in magazines telling people, to “check your state’s rules and deadlines, and ensure you have ample time to complete the process.”
But the eight Texas Supreme Court justices who heard the case called that mere speculation and agreed with the Fifth Circuit that overall Abbott had expanded voting options.
They said Abbott’s order would only burden a small group of voters who are eligible for mail-in ballots and “credibly fear” their ballot would not arrive in time, could not drop-off their ballot on Election Day, face “substantially greater health risks” by voting in person and couldn’t “feasibly travel” to the single ballot drop-off site in their county before Election Day. In Texas, the only people eligible to vote absentee are those age 65 or older, those with a qualifying sickness or disability, those in jail but otherwise eligible, or those out of their home counties on Election Day or during the early voting period.
“Concern about this small class of voters does not render the October Proclamation unconstitutional,” the order states.
Besides, the high court found, per the Texas Election Code, counties can, and will, have multiple drop-off sites on Election Day.
“The Governor’s October Proclamation provides Texas voters more ways to vote in the November 3 election than does the Election Code. It does not disenfranchise anyone,” the order states.
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