Texas Voters Challenge Mail-In Ballot Regulations

A cyclist passes a mural painted on a business closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic on April 27 in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — A group of Texas voters and advocacy organizations asked a federal judge Monday to lift four provisions of the state’s election code they claim will keep mail-in voters’ ballots from being counted in the November general election.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to halt enforcement of the postage tax, mail-in ballot receipt deadlines, and signature-matching requirements, and allow ballot-delivery assistance. If those provisions remain as is during the current public health crisis, the plaintiffs say they will unconstitutionally burden Texans’ ability to vote or prevent election officials from counting their ballots. 

“In light of the present, unprecedented global health crisis, at least four provisions of the Texas Election Code will severely burden Texans’ right to exercise their right to vote in the coming November general election,” the plaintiffs claim in the petition submitted by attorney Skyler Howton of Perkins Coie. 

Citing statistics that indicate Texas has not reached its peak of Covid-19 infections and public health officials’ predictions that there may be resurgence of virus cases in the fall, the voters and civic groups argue that the crisis has made these provisions especially burdensome.

Plaintiff Linda Lewis, a 73-year-old Waco resident whose vision is impaired by an eye disorder, says her condition has affected her signature to such a degree that an election official might mistake it for a forgery. Additionally, since Waco’s mail is now being processed in Austin or Fort Worth before delivery, Lewis fears that her ballot might be delayed on either the way to her or on the way to the county board of elections.

“If there is any administrative burden implicated by the Signature Match Requirement, it is that unqualified county election officials use their ‘best judgment’ to verify signatures,” the plaintiffs argue. “Furthermore, the Signature Match Requirement does not serve an interest in fraud that could not otherwise be achieved without the disenfranchisement of countless Texas voters.”

Ellen Sweets, a 79-year-old Austinite who worries her asthma would render her particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus’ most severe complications, is also concerned that her ballot will be delayed in the mail. But the ban on ballot delivery assistance means that none of Sweets’ friends could deliver her sealed mail-in ballot to the county office for her without risking criminal prosecution.

“Because many Texans will be casting mail-in ballots for the first time come November and are therefore unfamiliar with the process, and because of unpredictable USPS delivery, some voters will find it necessary to drop off their mail-in ballots directly to the county,” the 43-page complaint states. “However, many of these voters will not be able to do so in light of the public health crisis, nor will they be able to receive assistance by way of a third party collecting and returning their ballots because the Voter Assistance Ban makes that collection a felony.”

George Morgan is a 63-year-old Dallas voter who says his genetic lung disorder has stretched his income and disability benefits so thin that procuring postage online during the crisis — as he risks contracting Covid-19 if he were to visit a post office in person — is cost-prohibitive.

Morgan says that buying an $11 book of stamps and having it shipped to his home in time for the ballot receipt deadline is unaffordable, given his situation.

The voters are joined by the Texas state conference of the NAACP, Voto Latino and the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans in their suit against Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs. 

Hughs’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The plaintiffs’ lawsuit challenges unique portions of Texas’ election laws, which have also come under fire in state and federal courts for enforcing strict requirements on who is eligible to receive a mail-in ballot.

“Even if all registered voters are eligible to vote by mail in Texas in the November election, that would not be sufficient to prevent the serious risk of disenfranchisement and threats to public health that will occur if the Vote By Mail Restrictions remain in place in the pandemic,” complaint states. 

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton submitted a brief Monday rebuffing attempts to relax the eligibility requirements for acquiring a mail-in ballot. 

“Unlawful expansion of mail-in voting, which is a special protection made available to Texans with actual disabilities, will only serve to undermine the security of our elections and to facility fraud,” wrote Paxton in a press statement. “Fear of contracting Covid-19 does not amount to a sickness or physical condition as required by state law.”

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