Texas Democrats Sue Elections Officials to Demand Mail-In Voting

April 9, 2020by James Barragán, The Dallas Morning News (TNS)
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott arrives at a Capitol news conference on March 13, 2020 where he issued a disaster declaration in response to the growing threat of the coronavirus. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman/TNS)

AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Democratic Party sued state and county election officials in federal court on Tuesday to demand mail-in voting for elections scheduled during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a complaint filed in the San Antonio federal district court, Texas Democrats sued Gov. Greg Abbott, Secretary of State Ruth R. Hughs, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir and Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen.

“As we face the worst public health crisis in a century, neither Governor Abbott nor Secretary of State Hughes(sic) have issued concrete guidance to county election officials on whether voters can cast a mail-in ballot during the coronavirus pandemic,” Texas Democrats chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Current law allows any voter whose health may be injured by voting in person to vote by mail. As our city and county leaders issue shelter-in-place orders and our residents are urged to stay inside, we must protect Texans’ ability to cast a ballot without jeopardizing their health or safety,” he added. “Texas Democrats will continue to protect our fundamental right to vote and the integrity of our elections. We must not allow the coronavirus outbreak to halt our democracy.”

Abbott and Hughs did not immediately respond to a request for comment. DeBeauvoir and Callanen are named because defendants in the lawsuit live within Travis and Bexar counties, respectively.

The lawsuit alleges that both the upcoming Democratic primary for U.S. Senate and the November presidential elections will be affected by the pandemic.

Because most people vote in person, the lawsuit asks the district court to declare the current election conditions illegal because they’d deprive many Texans of the right to vote if they were too scared to cast physical ballots. It also asks the court to block the defendants from enforcing the election conditions and requests orders from the court about how to proceed during the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit is the second filed by the party against the state about the issue. In March, the party had filed a suit in state court asking for the same thing. A hearing in that case is scheduled for April 15, but the Democrats said that case only pertains to one provision of state law, so there is a need for a federal case to argue constitutional claims made in their new lawsuit.

The same day as the state lawsuit, Abbott postponed the Democratic runoff for U.S. Senate candidates from May 26 to July 14, saying an election in May would go against the social distancing needed to prevent the coronavirus’ spread.

The Democrats’ federal lawsuit comes the same day as reports of massive lines in Wisconsin, where officials opted to hold in-person elections, where people are not practicing “social distancing.”

“Events unfolding in Wisconsin demonstrate that lack of organized election procedures under the pandemic circumstances will result in harm to rights guaranteed by the federal constitution,” the lawsuit said.

The suit is filed on behalf of The Texas Democratic Party, Hinojosa, and three Texas residents — two from Travis County and one from Bexar — who voted in the March 3rd Democratic primary in-person but wish to cast their votes for the July 14 run-off by mail.

Democrats argue that “social distancing” will continue for weeks, and will likely return after being lifted, and cite research from Harvard University that they argue would “include a significant barrier to wide-scale in-person voting over the next year.”

The Democrats cite projections of COVID19 cases and hospitalizations, and an expected second wave of mass outbreaks in the fall, to call for increased mail-in voting eligibility.

The complaint cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Monday not to act on the Wisconsin elections because a lawsuit had been filed too close to the election date as a reason for filing the Texas lawsuit well in advance of the Democratic primary runoff in July.

One of the qualifying reasons for voting by mail in Texas is if a person is “sick or disabled.” Texas Democrats argue that “disability” could cover any resident in the state because the statute defines it as “a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.

But, the lawsuit said, Texas officials have not provided a definition of that term to local election administrators, putting at risk the voting rights of “every voter under the age of 65” who is socially distancing. People over 65 are also eligible to vote by mail, under state law.

The Democrats also fear that the state could leave the decision about how to alter election requirements to each county, resulting in different rules for different jurisdictions.

“Left without Court intervention, the state will march toward upcoming elections with no plan in place,” the lawsuit said.

Arguing that the plaintiffs will lose their voting right if elections are carried out without changes, the lawsuit asks the federal court to “ensure compliance with federal law” and order a remedy if the state does not provide an adequate response.

The Democrats also asked the court to grant them attorney’s fees in the case and place the state under federal preclearance for any future changes to voting practices and procedures.

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©2020 The Dallas Morning News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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