Texas Supreme Court Refuses to Shut Down Drive-Thru Voting

Queue for drive-through voting at NRG Center in Houston. (Credit: Chris Hollins)

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — More than 70,000 Houston-area voters have cast their ballots from their vehicles and thousands more will do so after the Texas Supreme Court on Thursday denied a bid from Republicans to shut down drive-thru voting.

In what critics said was a cynical attempt to suppress turnout in the Democratic stronghold of Harris County the day before the Oct. 13 start of early voting, the Republican Party of Texas filed a lawsuit trying to stop the county from giving all registered voters the option of casting their ballots curbside or in drive-thru booths.

Harris County’s 34-year-old Clerk Chris Hollins is getting rave reviews for his administration of early voting, in which over the first seven days about half as many ballots were cast as the whole turnout for the 2016 election.

That election cemented the status of the county, whose seat is Houston, as solidly Democratic, as Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 160,000 votes and Democrats, including 17 Black women, swept incumbent Republican judges out of office.

After the Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs’ staff in June gave Harris County its blessing to offer drive-thru voting, the Harris County Commissioners Court, the county’s executive board, approved 10 drive-thru voting sites in August.

Two weeks later, Texas Elections Administrator Keith Ingram said of Harris County’s drive-thru voting plans “it’s a creative approach that is probably okay legally” in a court hearing for an unrelated case.

The Texas Republican Party claimed Hollins was using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to violate the Texas Election Code, though both Hughs and Ingram are Republicans.

It argued because fear of contracting Covid-19 at the polls doesn’t qualify people to vote by mail, as the Texas Supreme Court ruled in May, it doesn’t qualify them for curbside or drive-through voting either.

The party claimed only sick or handicapped people or those for whom voting in the polling place “would create a likelihood of injuring (their) health” make the cut to vote from their cars.

Harris County, represented by Austin attorney Susan Hays, countered that the GOP was basing its arguments on the false claim drive-thru voting is the same as curbside voting. But she said drive-thru is no different from walking into a polling place to cast your ballot.

Republicans took issue with Harris County ushering drivers into temporary tent structures, where they are handed a voting tablet after poll workers check their IDs and tell them to turn off their cellphones.

In declarations filed for the county, three voters described their experiences with drive-thru voting in a parking garage at the Toyota Center, where the Houston Rockets play.

They said the process took 10 to 20 minutes and they hope it is an option for future elections. One of them raved, “It was so easy!”

The Texas Republican Party appealed to the state Supreme Court after the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston found it had waited too long to challenge the county’s vote-from-your-car regime.

A similar petition brought by the Harris County Republican Party three days after in-person early voting started was also rejected by the 14th Court of Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court.

A majority of the high court’s justices rejected the challenges late Thursday without issuing an error.

Hollins praised the court on Twitter. “Once again, the law is on our side. The Court’s decision to uphold the legality of Drive-Thru Voting as a safe and convenient way to vote underscores that this November, democracy is on the ballot,” he wrote.  

Justice John Devine filed a lone dissent in which he said Hollins exceeded his discretion in setting up drive-thru voting sites and he would grant a stay until the court decided if the Texas Election Code allows it.

The Texas Supreme Court also on Thursday rejected a petition from a Republican voter who claimed Harris County was registering voters without verifying their citizenship.

Early voting ends Oct. 30 in Texas.

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