AUSTIN, TEXAS - Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday ordered counties to have only one mail-in ballot drop-off site, shuttering dozens of locations in some of the state’s largest cities and key Democratic strongholds just as voters started to return ballots.
Abbott called his order a move to enhance poll security, while Democrats blasted it as a naked effort to suppress voters.
Beginning October 2, eligible voters can deliver their mail ballots in person to locations designated by the county’s early voting clerk. There will be no more than one drop-off location per county. Poll watchers may observe ballot deliveries at each location.
“These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting,” Abbott said.
Harris County, which includes Houston, had 12 drop-off locations for its more than 2 million registered voters as of September. Travis County, which includes the state capital of Austin, had four. Harris County covers an area of more than 4,400 square kilometers, while Travis County stretches over more than 2,600 square kilometers. Other counties are individually as large as 15,500 square kilometers — larger than the entire state of Connecticut. Texas has 254 counties.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told the Associated Press that the county will “fight this to the extent that we can” and that county lawyers were considering legal action. She said Abbott’s action was another effort to suppress voters and an additional obstacle to democracy.
Earlier on Twitter, Hidalgo pointed out that Harris County is larger than the state of Rhode Island.
“Mail ballot voters shouldn’t have to drive 30 miles [48 km] to drop off their ballot, or rely on a mail system that’s facing cutbacks,” she said.
The U.S. Postal Service informed Texas in July that given the state’s current mail ballot request deadline, some ballots may not be delivered to voters by Election Day, and that even if all ballots reached voters on time, there was a “significant risk” that completed ballots postmarked on or near Election Day would not be received by the state’s November 4 deadline.
The Texas Secretary of State’s office has not responded to Associated Press requests for comment on its plans to ensure the timely delivery of ballots.
Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said in a statement that he had applauded Abbott’s July proclamation allowing voters to drop off their mail ballots before Election Day because it “gave voters more options to vote safely during the global pandemic and alleviated concerns over mail delivery.” He said Abbott’s reversal will harms voters, and lead to widespread confusion and voter suppression.
“Our office is more than willing to accommodate poll watchers at mail ballot drop-off locations,” Hollins said. “But 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 [5,180 square kilometers] is prejudicial and dangerous.”
Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement following the proclamation that Republicans were “on the verge of losing, so Gov. Abbott is trying to adjust the rules last minute.” He said courts nationwide have held that it is too late to make changes to election rules.
“Make no mistake: Democracy itself is on the ballot,” Hinojosa said in a statement.
Polls show unusually tight races this year in America’s biggest red state, intensifying battles over voting access. Texas is one of just five states not allowing widespread mail-in voting this year. Abbott has resisted calls to expand eligibility and courts have sided with GOP leaders who say fear of catching COVID-19 doesn’t qualify voters for mail-in ballots.
To qualify for a mail-in ballot in Texas, voters must be: away from their county of residence on Election Day and during the early voting period; sick or disabled; confined in jail but otherwise eligible to vote; or 65 years old or older.