The decision from U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen came after local conservative provocateur Steven Hotze and three other plaintiffs — Republican state Rep. Steve Toth and Republican candidates Sharon Hemphill and Wendell Champion — sued Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, alleging that the drive-thru voting system implemented by his office was illegal under provisions of the U.S. Constitution applying to how states, including Texa, carry out their election law.
Hanen’s ruling is sure to frustrate Texas Republicans, who have been trying tirelessly to fight Democrat-led efforts to make voting easier during the pandemic citing unsubstantiated fears of voter fraud. It probably stings for state Republicans even more given that Hanen is definitely right-leaning as far as federal judges go — he was appointed by George W. Bush, and drew the ire of progressives for a string of hardline decisions against the Obama administration’s DACA program — but still couldn’t bring himself to side with Hotze.
Hollins contended all along that the county’s plan was legal and had even been explicitly approved by the Texas Secretary of State’s office. Drive-thru voting was piloted during this summer’s July primary runoff election, and no GOP operatives cried foul back then.
Hotze and his allies filed two separate lawsuits against Hollins in federal and state courts over drive-thru voting in Harris County. The all-Republican Texas Supreme Court dismissed the state court case on Sunday evening. By the time the federal court case was filed on Wednesday, over 100,000 county residents had already voted via drive-thru at one of the ten Harris County polling places offering the service.
In an inexcusable lack of transparency, multiple reporters from local and national news outlets weren’t allowed into the courtroom Monday morning, despite previous guidance from the Southern District of Texas that journalists would be allowed to cover the hearing in-person. If that wasn’t bad enough, the conference call system set up for the media and the public to listen-in remotely crapped out just as the hearing was set to start at 10:30 a.m.
According to the Austin American-Statesman’s Chuck Lindell, Hanen said in court that even if he believed Hotze and his co-petitioners had proper standing, he would have still ordered that all drive-thru votes already cast be counted, but would have blocked drive-thru voting on Election Day itself. And despite his ruling, Hanen did instruct Harris County to maintain separate records of which specific votes were cast via drive-thru in case his ruling gets overturned by a higher court.
Eventually, some reporters were allowed into the hearing after it had been underway for an hour, which the Houston Chronicle’s Zach Despart hinted may have happened thanks to the paper’s lawyers getting involved. The dial-in feed started working once the hearing was underway as well, but it was hard to make out much amid poor audio quality and loud alert noises that played every time a new person called in. At one point during the hearing, ABC13’s Miya Shay tweeted that Hanen even instructed reporters “not to tweet during live proceedings inside the court,” which — while frustrating — is technically within his authority to enforce.
On Monday afternoon, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement celebrating Hanen’s ruling. “Today’s decision validates what we have been saying all along: Drive-thru voting is safe, secure, legal, and a common sense way for voters to cast their ballots during a pandemic,” Hidalgo said.
“It is beyond comprehension that anyone would seek to invalidate 127,000 votes legally cast by voters,” Hidalgo continued. “While we fully expect more appeals and litigation from those seeking to suppress the voices of our citizens, we will continue our fight to zealously protect the sanctity of each and every ballot cast here in Harris County.”