A state district judge last week issued a temporary injunction that will likely expand the number of vote-by-mail ballots cast statewide during this summer’s primary runoff elections. The ruling loosened restrictions on who can request absentee ballots, citing a section of Texas’ state election code allowing disabled residents to vote by mail.
The order could affect voter turnout for the July 14 primary runoff elections in Cameron and Hidalgo counties. Officials postponed both elections last month in accordance with a disaster declaration issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in response to the spread of COVID-19.
On Monday, a representative of the Secretary of State Elections Division said the agency would post information regarding the vote-by-mail changes online once it received instruction on how to proceed. Locally, election officials in Cameron and Hidalgo counties said that staff was preparing in the event officials needed to send and process more mail kits.
So far, there are no plans to close poll locations in either county, addressing concerns that the transition to vote by mail would exacerbate low turnout in marginalized communities as disabled voters, senior citizens, and first-time vote by mail applicants in communities of color navigate the system amid the chaos of a pandemic.
Skeleton crews of election staff and postal workers as well as shutdowns and altered hours at polling locations could mean more ballots lost in the mail, a smaller workforce to handle increased vote-by-mail demand, though the temporarily expanded access to mail-in ballots is ultimately a victory for voters across the state.
According to Texas law, residents eligible to vote by mail must have a disability or illness, be over the age of 65, reside out of the county during the election period, or be detained. Republicans have opposed the push to expand access to the service amid shutdowns caused by coronavirus.
A lawsuit was filed by the Texas Democratic Party alongside two voters who sought the ability to vote by mail during the outbreak. Eventually, a third voter and a coalition of nonprofit organizations joined the lawsuit.
The temporary injunction signed by Judge Tim Sulak of the 201st state District Court of Travis County on Friday mandated a copy of the ruling circulated in every county throughout Texas. The judge’s order barred election officials from issuing guidance or acting in a manner that would cause agencies to reject vote by mail ballots requested by those who use the disability category of eligibility as a result of the pandemic.
Plaintiffs in the case were represented by Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Joaquin Gonzalez, Staff Attorney at TCRP’s Voting Rights Program, presented oral argument in the case.
“The current law, as it’s written, lets people vote by mail when they’re risking their health to go to a polling place,” he said.
“What the judge agreed with is that everybody, at least for the July elections, is risking their health to go vote in person. Because of this unprecedented pandemic, if there’s no option to vote by mail, people are going to be making that untenable choice of risking their heath or their right to vote. They shouldn’t have to do that.”
Gonzalez specified that counties across Texas need advance notice to prepare for increased vote by mail capacity and that it’s already late to begin preparing for the July 14 elections.
In Cameron County, the Republican Party will add one early voting station in the Laguna Madre area, Elections Administrator Remi Garza explained. Staff is preparing to have additional applications for ballot by mail submitted by people who are using the service for the first time.
“We’re also buying protective equipment for the polling locations. We’re taking as many step as we can to protect our voters on July 14,” he said.
When discussions began about expanding the service due to COVID-19, officials worried counties wouldn’t have the resources to mail every resident a ballot, according to Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramón. “It’s not something that happens overnight.
“It takes a lot of planning, resources, and supplies. When this was first being discussed and we thought we would have to mail a ballot to everybody, we were concerned because we don’t have 385,000 ballots to send. And it takes postage to and from, it takes the mail kits.”
Ramón said it was decided voters must still apply in order to receive a ballot in the mail and as such, the county feels prepared to handle a likely increase in requests. The office is waiting to see whether Friday’s ruling takes effect or is appealed and will act accordingly.
Staff in both counties are working to ensure that third-parties handling mail are ready to process the flow of correspondence. During a recent advisory committee meeting, elections administrators asked the Secretary of State’s office to include a representative of the U.S. Postal Service in discussions regarding the elections, Ramón said.
Friday’s injunction may be appealed by the state. In a letter addressed to the Texas House of Representatives’ Committee on Elections Chair Stephanie Klick last Tuesday, Attorney General Ken Paxton’s Office opposed the expansion of vote by mail, stating “fear of contracting COVID-19 unaccompanied by a qualifying sickness or physical condition does not constitute a disability under the Election Code for purposes of receiving a ballot by mail.”
Paxton’s office implied that the novel coronavirus does not pose a threat to voters’ physical health and therefore would not constitute eligibility for a mail-in ballot.
“The Legislature has defined ‘disability’ for purposes of voting by mail as a ‘sickness or physical condition’ that prevents a person from voting in-person on election day without a likelihood of receiving personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health,” the office wrote.
Asked how the county will be handling requests, Garza said county officials are “following the law as it’s currently presented.
“Our job is to review the application, make sure it’s put together correctly, and if there’s anything on it that would give us reason to think we need to send it back to the voter for clarification, we would send it at that time,” he said. “We need to do our best to inform the public as to what the process is, how they can track their ballots, and things they can do if they’re not comfortable with where their ballot is in the ballot by mail process.”
Garza assured residents there are “steps and procedures to protect voters and protect their vote if they feel they need to.” Information will be available on cameronvotes.com. Anyone with questions can call the elections department at (956) 544-0809.
Hidalgo County is also processing requests normally.
“We want decisions to be made so we can better prepare. We want there to be finality in these decisions. We will do whatever it takes to make sure our voters are honored in their right to vote,” Ramón said.
Residents can contact the county’s elections department in Edinburg at (956) 318-2570.