Texas Democrats and voting rights organisations have sued the governor to halt his order closing mail-in ballot drop-off boxes, limiting drop-off locations to just one per county in the second largest state in the US.
With November elections already underway and thousands of ballots cast during early voting across the US, plaintiffs argued “forcing such new burdens on voters who relied on a different set of election rules to make their voting plan, is unreasonable, unfair, and unconstitutional.”
The lawsuit from the state’s Democratic party, League of United Latin American Citizens and the League of Women Voters Texas also includes lead plaintiffs Ralph Edelbach and Barbara Mason, two senior Texas residents who would be forced to make long drives to drop off their ballots under Greg Abbott’s order, issued on Thursday.
In Travis County, which holds the state’s capital of Austin, officials had opened four satellite locations for voters to hand-deliver their mail-in ballots. The county of 1.2 million people includes more than 800,000 registered voters, all within a county that’s more than 1,000 square miles.
Harris County, one of the largest counties in the US, had 12 satellite offices, covering the greater Houston area.
The county covers more than 1,700 square miles, with more than 2.4 million registered voters.
Mr Edelbach, 82, would have to drive 36 miles away to the single designated drop-off office in Harris County, under the governor’s order.
Austin resident Ms Mason, 71, would have to make an hour-long round-trip to deposit her ballot under the new rules, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims: “For Texas’ absentee voters – including those who had already requested or received their absentee ballot with the expectation that they would be able to use one of many drop-off locations offered by their county – the effect of the [order] is to unreasonably burden their ability to vote.”
Voters who choose to drop off their mail-ballots rather than risk delays at the beleaguered US Postal Service or crowded polls on Election Day will “have to travel further distances, face longer waits, and risk exposure to Covid-19, in order to use the single ballot return location in their county,” according to the lawsuit, filed in US District Court on Thursday.
“If they are unwilling or unable to face these new burdens, they will have to rely on a hobbled postal mail system – that has expressed a lack of confidence in its own ability to timely deliver the mail – and hope that their ballot will be delivered in time to be counted,” according to the plaintiffs. “Inevitably, for some absentee voters, their hope will be misplaced, and their ballot will not be counted.”
The lawsuit also alleges that order will disproportionately impact black and Latino voters in the states’s heavily populated counties.
Governor Abbott, a Republican, said election security and Covid-19 concerns prompted the order, though Texas Democrats argued that it’s a last-minute attempt to suppress votes despite court rulings that have determined it’s too late to change election rules, with only a month to Election Day on 3 November.
State election officials expanded vote-by-mail efforts in the state, bracing for a greater demand for absentee ballots during the pandemic to prevent crowding in-person polling locations on Election Day.
“Texas has a voter suppression problem, not a ballot security problem,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas said in a statement. "We are dismayed that the governor of Texas decided to curtail the ability of Texans to cast their ballots safely in the middle of a pandemic by limiting the number of drop-off sites per county.”
Democratic US Rep Lloyd Doggett, whose district spans a significantly gerrymandered stretch of Texas that includes San Antonio and Austin, called the order an “outrageous act of voter suppression" that echoes Donald Trump’s baseless attacks against vote-by-mail efforts.
“Abbott shows his real concern is not drop boxes, but more and more voters dropping Trump and his enablers,” Congressman Doggett said in a statement to The Independent.
“Trump attacks mailboxes; Abbott attacks drop boxes," he said. "Just as he previously ignored medical science, overruling local leaders and exposing Texans to virus dangers, he is now restricting an opportunity to vote safely. Afraid of accountability – relentlessly suppressing the vote – this move will backfire as more voters are determined to be heard. This sabotage is not about election security; it is about Republican political insecurity.”
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