Last week, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins announced a plan to send mail-in ballot applications to the nearly 2.4 million registered voters in Harris County. On Monday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit in district court against Hollins with the hope of preventing those unsolicited applications from ever hitting Harris County mailboxes.
“Unfortunately, instead of protecting the integrity of our democratic process, the Harris County Clerk decided to knowingly violate election laws by preparing to send over two million ballot applications to many Texans who do not qualify and have not requested to vote by mail,” said Paxton in a statement Monday. “This blatant violation of law undermines our election security and integrity and cannot stand.”
Paxton didn’t spell out a specific law that Hollins would be breaking if ballot applications were sent out as planned, but instead wrote that doing so would be “an illegal ultra vires act,” lawyer-speak for something that’s outside of an elected official’s powers as explicitly listed in statute.
However, the issue isn’t as clear cut as Paxton is making it out to be. “The state doesn’t have a legal basis for trying to stop the county from executing its plan,” said Jared Smith, a public relations representative for the Brennan Center of Justice, New York University Law School’s non-partisan public policy institute.
Earlier Monday, the Harris County Republican Party joined local conservative provocateur Steven Hotze in a separate lawsuit against Hollins, which also claimed the county clerk’s plan was illegal.
Monday’s lawsuits come on the heels of a letter sent to Hollins on Thursday by the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which threatened that Paxton would take legal action against Hollins if the application plan wasn’t scrapped by Monday. The Secretary of State’s office got involved after it received a request from Houston Republican State Sen. Paul Bettencourt to intervene.
Bettencourt and Paxton have both argued that Harris County shouldn’t send out applications for a mail-in ballot to every county voter because the county should realize that the vast majority of residents would not qualify to receive one under state law, which says the only people guaranteed a mail-in ballot are those who are 65 or over, are disabled, will be out of the county on Election Day or are incarcerated. Only fifteen other states in addition to Texas have similar rules on the books that only allow certain voters to ask for mail-in ballots.
Republican critics have also said that sending so many paper applications through the United States Postal Service could gum up the works of the state’s postal service, which could make it take longer for mail-in ballots themselves and valid ballot applications to get delivered in a timely fashion.
Earlier this summer, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that fear of catching COVID-19 didn’t qualify as a disability. Texas Democrats are currently involved in a separate case where they’ve claimed that the state’s rules around who qualifies for a mail-in ballot constitute age discrimination, which is still underway.
So far, Hollins hasn’t given any sign that his office will halt its plan to mail out these ballot applications in his county. “Providing more information and resources to voters is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Hollins said in a statement.