Under the guise of securing voter absentee ballots, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order Thursday for counties to stop accepting hand-delivered absentee ballots at more than one location. The order requires counties to close all locations but one, at which poll workers will observe ballot deliveries. It follows consistent claims by Donald Trump that the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is unreliable and that the ballot voting system is not to be trusted.
The order went into effect Friday and modifies aspects of another order Abbot issued on July 27, in which he added six days of early absentee voting in the state, NBC News reported. "The state of Texas has a duty to voters to maintain the integrity of our elections," Abbott said in a statement. "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. These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting."
Voters’ rights advocates and others believe the order is an effort to limit Democratic votes. According to the Census Bureau, Harris County, which includes Houston, has a population of more than 4.7 million people. Prior to Abbott’s order, the county had 11 ballot drop-off locations, NBC News reported. Home to 25% of the state’s Black residents and 18% Hispanic, limiting ballot drop-off locations to one space will result in obstacles for voters of color.
The order also came the same day that Travis County—where Austin is located—opened four drop-off locations to accommodate the increasing demand for mail-in voting due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir called the order "most unfortunate" and said she plans to “challenge” the governor’s efforts to close three of the Travis County locations, NPR reported. "I don't know what is going to happen to the governor's order until we get to the point that I can talk about it in court," she said. "In the meantime, I am still going to listen to what the county attorney tells me is the appropriate thing for the county clerk to do. And that is what we will follow."
DeBeauvoir also noted that the order “targeted” urban countries, which are predominantly Democratic. "This is a deliberate attempt to manipulate the election," she said. "If the governor was truly worried about this, he could have stopped this program more than a month ago or contacted the urban counties that are all doing the same thing Travis County is doing."
Texas has over 254 counties, some larger than multiple states combined. As a result of the order, voters may have to drive hours to a drop-off location. "Governor Abbott and Texas Republicans are scared. We are creating a movement that will beat them at the ballot box on November 3, and there's nothing these cheaters can do about it," Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.
Because of the pandemic, most states have made voting by mail easier, whereas Texas has made COVID-19 an excuse to suppress more votes. According to NPR, an unprecedented number of Texas residents are expected to vote by mail, particularly those who identify as disabled or are otherwise more susceptible to the virus.
“Going back on his word at this point harms voters and will result in widespread confusion and voter suppression,” Chris Hollins, Harris County’s Democratic clerk, said on Twitter. Hollins criticized the governor for going against the state’s advertising of multiple drop-off locations. “To force hundreds of thousands of seniors and voters with disabilities to use a single drop-off location in a county that stretches over nearly 2,000 square miles is prejudicial and dangerous.”
Abbott’s announcement quickly garnered criticism Thursday with multiple organizations and Democratic leaders noting that they would fight it. "This sabotage is not about election security," Lloyd Doggett, Austin's Democratic congressman, said in a statement. “It is about Republican political insecurity. With over a month to return your ballot, voting by mail remains the safest way to participate."
Voting rights groups quickly filed a suit Thursday against the governor’s decision and were joined by two Texas voters and the state Democratic Party, the Texas Tribune reported. The League of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters Texas, and Texas residents Ralph Edelbach and Barbara Mason filed the suit in federal court in Austin. “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 plaintiffs said.
The lawsuit is expected to move quickly as early voting begins in less than two weeks on Oct. 13. “The impact of this eleventh-hour decisions is momentous, targets Texas’ most vulnerable voters—older voters, and voters with disabilities—and results in wild variations in access to absentee voting drop-off locations depending on the county a voter resides in,” attorneys for the groups argued. “It also results in predictable disproportionate impacts on minority communities that already hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis.”
According to The Washington Post, the order follows similar legislation in Ohio in which Secretary of State Frank LaRose limited each county to one ballot drop box. The order was blocked, resulting in LaRose and the Ohio Republican Party appealing the decision.
But of course, instead of realizing the negative consequences the order would have on voters’ rights, a spokesperson for Abbott told NBC News that the governor was expanding access to voting, not limiting it. “Before the Governor’s executive order, Texans who wanted to vote by mail could either mail their ballot or submit it in person on Election Day only. Because of COVID-19, the governor’s executive order increased the time period during which voters can submit their mail in ballot in person to include anytime leading up to Election Day,” spokesman John Wittman said. “That time period did not exist under current law. Moreover, the only ballots subject to this order are mail in ballots. Most of those ballots are in fact submitted by mail. The additional time provided for those who want to submit their mail in ballot in person is sufficient to accommodate the limited number of people who have traditionally used that voting strategy.”