Lawsuits Abound as Governor, Voting Rights Groups Spar Over Election Integrity

Office headquarters for Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins.
Office headquarters for Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. Photo by Jennifer Lake

In the last few months, the volunteer organization Powered by People founded by Beto O'Rourke, has made 4.1 million calls and registered nearly 80,000 voters.

So it's not surprising that O'Rourke and Democratic leaders in Texas were not happy with Governor Greg Abbott's October 1 order restricting the number of mail-in ballet drop-off locations to just one in each county.

“They are trying to suppress the vote, but they will not be successful, because of the work all these folks are doing, including our Powered by People volunteers,” O’Rourke, a former presidential and senatorial candidate, said. “Texas has a history of voter suppression … so many efforts to keep Black and Latino voters from fully participating. Those same forces are still at work, I just contend that, primarily Democrats’, efforts have made it easier for people to vote despite that.”

Amid these calls of voter suppression, two lawsuits have already been filed, including one from the local and national Leagues of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas, and two voters, challenging the governor's action on the basis that the ballot drop-off closures will “unreasonably burden their ability to vote” and disproportionately affect voters of color.

The governor's action has a large impact on a sprawling area like Harris County which has already been forced to close 11 of its planned drop-off sites.

Abbott cited the need to “strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state” as justification for the closures. However, policies already state that voters can only submit their own ballots and must show an approved form of identification to the drop-off location staff.

In addition, Texas’ rules for absentee voters are stricter than most states. Voters are eligible to apply for a mail-in ballot only if they are 65 or older, confined in jail but otherwise eligible, out of the county for the election period, or cite a disability.

For those who must cast their ballot in-person, Abbott extended the early voting period by six days. Houston Republicans are currently suing to rescind that extension and further limit absentee voting.

Republican Party of Texas Chairman Allen West put out a statement applauding the order, which also ordered counties to allow poll watchers to observe the ballot drop-off sites.

“The Governor was following his duty [to] make sure that voter suppression doesn't happen in Texas,” West wrote. “[Harris County Clerk] Chris Hollins and the Democrat Party are responsible for these restrictions, because of their blatant election maleficence, such as turning away poll watchers at the drop off locations in Harris County.”

Hollins said that his office is “more than willing to accommodate poll watchers at mail ballot drop-off locations,” but that the ballot drop-off location closures will harm voters.

The right to vote – as argued by the lawsuit filed by the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans, a get-out-the-vote group BigTent Creative and a 65-year-old voter – is not just the right to cast a ballot, but “the right to have the vote counted.” The lawsuit claims this right may be threatened if voters in these counties are forced to rely on the United States Postal Service to deliver their ballots if they cannot travel to the one available drop-off location.

In August, the USPS warned Texas officials that some ballots may not arrive on time to be counted due to certain state deadlines for mail-in ballots and the USPS’s delivery schedule.

But in a statement to the Houston Press after Gov. Abbott’s order, the USPS said that the postal service has “ample capacity” to handle the expected surge in mail-in ballots. According to the USPS, an internal directive authorizes local USPS to use additional resources, including expanded processing procedures, extra transportation, extra delivery and collection trips, and overtime, beginning October 1.

“The U.S. Postal Service’s number one priority between now and the November election is the secure, timely delivery of the nation’s Election Mail,” the statement read.

According to the Texas Tribune, 99 percent of mail-in ballots were counted during the July primary run-off and most of the uncounted ballots had arrived too late. Election officials stress that given the expected volume of election mail, eligible voters should request and send back their mail-in ballots early.

Both lawsuits against Abbott’s order point out it came just weeks before early voting is set to begin. In a federal lawsuit over straight-ticket voting in Texas, the governor had argued in June that changes close to an election can “cause ‘confusion’ and even undermine public confidence.”

Despite the governor's action, which he does expect to have an impact on voter turnout, O'Rouke remains encouraged.

“You want to be clear-eyed that there is voter suppression in Texas, but we all need to remember that thanks to the Democratic leadership across Texas and in the counties, voting is easier than it’s ever been and that will help us overcome [the negative impact of the order on turnout],” O’Rourke said.

Should either of the lawsuits prove successful in undoing the governor’s order, Hollins said he could reopen the shuttered locations "at the drop of a dime."
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Anna Ta is a reporting fellow covering local and regional news at the Houston Press in partnership with the Google News Initiative. Born and raised in Houston, she's always in search of the strongest and sweetest Vietnamese coffee humanly possible.
Contact: Anna Ta