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Texas recently changed its election rules, limiting the number of drop-off sites in which voters can deposit their absentee ballots to one per county.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is facing three lawsuits over his recent decision to limit each county in the state to one drop-off site for absentee ballots. The advocacy groups that filed the lawsuits argue that the governor’s rule change came far too late in election proceedings and is tantamount to voter suppression.
Abbott made the change in a proclamation issued on October 1 as an amendment to a July order that expanded the window during which people with mail-in ballots could deliver them to local election offices. Some large counties established satellite sites to accommodate voters who feared U.S. Postal Service delays would result in their votes being lost, and to prevent a crush of voters at any particular election office.
Early voting starts in Texas on October 13 and absentee ballots can be dropped off until November 3. County drop-off locations are staffed by local election officials who check voters’ IDs when they hand in ballots. Voters are not required to wear masks when they drop off their ballots and cannot drop off ballots for anyone else. The proclamation also requires election clerks to allow poll watchers to observe voters throughout the early voting period.
In a statement accompanying the proclamation, Abbott said that Texas “has a duty to voters to maintain the integrity of our elections” and that limiting drop-off locations would “help stop attempts at illegal voting.”
“As we work to preserve Texans’ ability to vote during the Covid-19 pandemic, we must take extra care to strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state,” Abbott said.
Although the Republican governor and other conservative leaders have frequently expressed concerns about ballot security, particularly as more people turn to absentee ballots because of Covid-19, there is no evidence that mail-in voting leads to increased election fraud. Texas limits absentee voting more than many other states, only opening the process to people who are 65 or older, have a disability, will be out of the country on Election Day, or are in jail but otherwise eligible to vote.
Abbott was swiftly rebuked by local Democratic leaders who said that the limitations were illogical given the size of some Texas counties. Lina Hidalgo, the county judge for Harris County, which includes Houston, questioned why a county larger than the state of Rhode Island would only be allowed one drop-off location. (Rhode Island has 39 drop-off locations.) Before the proclamation, Harris County planned to have 12 ballot drop-off sites to accommodate the county’s 2.3 million registered voters.
“This isn't security, it's suppression,” she wrote on Twitter. “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.”
Three lawsuits were filed in recent days in an effort to invalidate Abbott’s changes. The Campaign Legal Center, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the League of Women Voters of Texas filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Thursday, asking a judge to “restore the status quo to Texas’s already-occurring election” and reinstate satellite drop-off sites. They said that limiting counties to one site will force voters to travel longer distances, wait in long lines, and consequently risk exposure to coronavirus.
“In the midst of an election that is already underway, 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 states.
In a statement, League of United Latin American Citizens president Domingo Garcia called Abbott’s decision “the worst type of third world politics or something that you would expect in a country like Russia or China, not Texas or the United States.”
The lawsuit also argues that the loss of drop-off locations disproportionately impacts minority communities. The ten largest counties by total land area are all predominantly minority counties. In Harris County, 40% of residents are Latino and almost 20% are Black.
In a second lawsuit brought Friday to the same court by the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans, the group asked a judge to declare the proclamation unconstitutional and prohibit the state from taking any further actions that would limit drop-off locations. Richard Fiesta, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans, said that the rule change was “a slap in the face to older Texans, who have suffered so much during this pandemic.”
The lawsuit cites an estimate from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an independent federal agency, that recommends at least one drop-off location for every 15,000 to 20,000 voters. “The availability of drop-off locations has become absolutely critical in the pandemic,” the lawsuit reads. “While other means of voting may allow voters to cast their ballots outside of regular business hours, or in a manner that minimizes in-person interactions, or at a location that guarantees their ballot is submitted in time to be counted, drop-off locations provide the only means of voting that guarantee voters all of these things.”
On Monday, the Brennan Center for Justice filed a lawsuit on behalf of three groups, arguing the limitation is unfair to both elderly and disabled voters who need safe places to vote more than other voters.
Courts in other states have seen similar legal battles play out in the past few weeks. A state court in Ohio on Friday found that the secretary of state can legally require counties to offer multiple drop boxes, but it is unclear whether that will happen. Republicans in Pennsylvania filed a suit to block drop boxes altogether, but the state Supreme Court rejected the argument. Some Republican state lawmakers in Wisconsin last week threatened to sue over ballot drop-off events in Madison city parks, but have not brought their argument before a court.
Editor's note: This story was updated after publication with the Brennan Center lawsuit.
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.