Citing unsubstantiated fears of voter fraud, Gov. Greg Abbott has decided that Texas counties are only allowed to have a single location where voters can drop-off their mail-in ballots, no matter the county’s size. Issued via a Thursday afternoon proclamation, Abbott’s new rule is a gut punch for Harris County, the largest county in the state with a whopping 2.4 million registered voters.
As was previously allowed, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins had already designated 12 different locations as places to drop off a ballot: the county’s election headquarters at NRG Arena, and 11 clerk’s annex offices spread across Harris County’s sprawling 1,777 square-miles.
Thanks to Abbott’s order, all of them except for the NRG Arena location have to shut down Friday.
County clerks across Texas have been setting up extra locations for their residents to hand in mail-in ballots in-person to allay the fears some voters have that the U.S. Postal Service might have trouble handling the heavy load of mail ballots due to highly-publicized budget cuts and staffing difficulties amid the pandemic.
Abbott said that his move was intended “to maintain the integrity of our elections” and to “stop attempts at illegal voting." The proclamation also says that poll watchers must be allowed to monitor mail-in ballot drop-offs as well — the ones legally approved by state law as registered representatives from each political party, not right-wing vigilantes who Pres. Trump encouraged to monitor polling sites during Tuesday’s dumpster fire of a debate.
Hollins and other Texas Democrats say Abbott’s explanation doesn’t pass the sniff test.
“Our office is more than willing to accommodate poll watchers at mail ballot drop-off locations,” Hollins said in a statement. “But to force hundreds of thousands of seniors and voters with disabilities to use a single drop-off location in a county that stretches over nearly 2,000 square miles is prejudicial and dangerous.”
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo agrees. She lit into Abbott in a barrage of tweets Thursday afternoon, writing that his decision makes no sense, especially for Harris County which is “bigger than the state of Rhode Island.”
“This isn’t security, it’s suppression,” Hidalgo tweeted. “Mail ballot voters shouldn’t have to drive 30 miles to drop off their ballot, or rely on a mail system that’s facing cutbacks.” She alleged Abbott’s move “has nothing to do with election security, because ballot drop sites require photo ID.” Hidalgo is correct — Harris County voters are required to show identification to clerk's office staff upon delivering a mail-in ballot in-person.
“A political party whose election strategy is to suppress turnout doesn’t deserve to win,” she wrote to cap-off her digital salvo.
“In the middle of a deadly pandemic, why on earth would Governor Abbott make it harder for people to cast their ballots? This is ridiculous,” said Democratic Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia of Houston.
Late Thursday afternoon, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner joined his Democratic colleagues in questioning Abbott's motives. "Growing up, I was bused over 20 miles as a student in the first integrated class at Klein High School. Because of the Governor's decision today, I would now have to go even farther to drop off an absentee ballot and make sure my vote is counted," Turner said in a statement.
"Harris County is the 3rd largest county in the United States, and Houston is the 4th largest city in the country," Turner continued. "Reducing the number of mail-in ballot drop-off sites from 11 to one is a direct attempt at voter suppression."
The governor’s decision contradicts the rationale used by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in its ruling on Tuesday to affirm the Texas Legislature's 2017 ban on straight-ticket voting that had been challenged by a federal judge earlier in September.
In its ruling, which state Republicans celebrated, the appellate court’s three-judge panel said part of its rationale for enforcing the straight-ticket voting law was based on U.S. Supreme Court precedent which recommends “that courts should not alter election rules on the eve of an election.”
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Abbott may be trying to appease his conservative detractors with his latest blatantly suppressive move. He’s currently being sued by Houston-area right-wing provocateur Steven Hotze and Republican Party of Texas Chair Allen West over using his emergency powers to extend early voting by a week earlier in the summer.
Hotze has also sued Harris County for allowing mail-in ballots to be dropped-off at multiple locations before election day, saying that it “creates an opportunity ripe for fraud” even though voting experts agree that mail-in ballot fraud is exceedingly rare.
In another example of state Republicans’ tireless efforts to fight Democrats’ attempts to make it easier to vote during the pandemic, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Hollins earlier this summer over the clerk’s plan to send mail-in ballot applications to all Harris County residents.
After working its way through lower courts, arguments in that case began at the Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday, and a ruling could come within the next couple of weeks.