AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The Democratic election administrator of Texas’ most populous county cannot send absentee ballot applications to all its registered voters, the state’s high court ruled Wednesday, handing a victory to Republicans who said it would lead people to mistakenly believe they qualify for voting by mail.
Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins stepped into the crosshairs of Texas Republicans when he took office in June as head of elections in the country’s third-most populous county, a Democratic stronghold in a red state, whose seat Houston is one of the most racially diverse cities in America.
Hollins, a 34-year-old personal injury attorney and graduate of Yale Law School and Harvard Business School, has said for months he believes voting by mail is the safest way to exercise the franchise amid the pandemic.
In late August he announced he planned to send absentee ballot applications to the county’s 2.4 million registered voters, provoking a lawsuit from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican.
Paxton claimed Hollins was acting beyond his authority as state law limits election officials to only send absentee ballot applications to people who request them, even though they can be printed off the secretary of state’s website, and advocacy groups, political parties and private citizens are free to hand them out, or mail them to voters.
After two lower courts sided with Hollins, Paxton appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which heard arguments Sept. 30 in which Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins said the fact that no Texas county clerk has ever sent absentee ballot applications, unsolicited, to all their constituents indicated it is illegal.
The state high court, whose eight justices are all Republicans, agreed Wednesday in a unanimous opinion.
“The Harris County clerk proposes to mail unsolicited ballot applications to all registered voters under 65 years of age, only a fraction of whom are eligible to vote by mail,” the ruling states. “Because no other election official in Texas is doing or has ever done what the clerk proposes, his plan threatens to undermine the statutorily required uniform operation of election laws across the state.”
Hollins has already mailed the applications to all the county’s registered voters 65 and older, who – along with people in jail or disabled, those who are out of their home county during election season, and crime victims approved by the state attorney general to keep their addresses confidential – qualify to vote by mail in Texas.
In court hearings, Hollins said Harris County considers people with underlying health problems putting them at risk for complications from Covid-19, including obesity, asthma, and smoking, qualify for voting by mail, in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
State attorneys disagreed that obesity and asthma are qualifying disabilities.
But they acknowledged county clerks are not required to investigate each applicants’ disability and must take voters’ word for it they are disabled.
Claiming the state has “an obligation to protect Texas voters from abuse by election officials,” Texas Elections Director Keith Ingram testified in a Sept. 9 hearing Hollins would be setting people up for prison time because some would mistakenly think they qualified to vote by mail simply because Hollins had mailed them an application.
Knowingly providing false information on the application is a “state jail felony” punishable by up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Hollins argued his authority to send the applications to people who did not request them is implied by the Texas Election Code. The Texas Supreme Court disagreed.
“Authority for Hollins’ proposed mass mailing can be implied from the Election Code only if it is necessarily part of an express grant—not simply convenient, but indispensable. Any reasonable doubt must be resolved against an implied grant of authority,” its justices wrote in a 14-page unsigned order.
They remanded the case to the trial court to enter an injunction barring Hollins from mailing unsolicited applications.
Harris County on Sept. 15 earmarked $1.5 million to pay a vendor to print up to 1.5 million absentee ballots for the November election. But the number of requested ballots will likely be much lower than that due to the Texas Supreme Court’s order.
Hollins says the mailers are designed to help manage the election because voters simply have to tear off a postcard with their name and voter ID number printed on it, and a barcode that can be scanned to enter their info into the county’s records.
He has also launched a new system allowing voters to track when their ballots are mailed to them and when they are added to the vote tally after the clerk’s office receives them.
Hollins blasted the ruling as a blow to democracy.
“It is disappointing that the court has sided with political forces seeking to limit voter access this November. Placing limitations on non-partisan outreach that educates citizens about their constitutional right to vote should not be acceptable in a democracy,” he said in a statement.
Paxton did not immediately respond Wednesday morning when asked to comment on the order.
It comes one day before litigants who sued to try to block a recent mandate by Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott restricting all the state’s 254 counties to only have one drop-off site for absentee ballots will make their case before U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin.
It was not all bad news Wednesday for Texas Democrats, who say Republicans are doing all they can to suppress voter turnout. The Texas Supreme Court also rejected a lawsuit brought by a handful of state Republican officials seeking to roll back the state’s early voting period to two weeks, after Abbott issued in order in July extending it to three weeks due to the pandemic. It starts Oct. 13.