Texas AG Asks State Supreme Court to Order Election Officials to Reject Mail Ballots

May 14, 2020by James Barragán, The Dallas Morning News (TNS)
Current Texas attorney general Ken Paxton (R-McKinney) speaks at the Texas Republican Convention on June 6, 2014, at the Fort Worth Convention Center in Fort Worth, Texas. (Tom Fox/Dallas Morning News/TNS)

AUSTIN, Texas — Attorney General Ken Paxton on Wednesday asked the Texas Supreme Court to order election officials in several counties to reject mail ballot applications from people who fear catching the coronavirus during in-person voting.

The motion specifically mentioned election officials in Dallas, Cameron, El Paso, Harris and Travis counties.

“Each misapplication of Texas election law damages the integrity of our elections and increases the risk of voter fraud. In-person voting is the surest way to prevent voter fraud and guarantee that every voter is who they claim to be and has a fair opportunity to cast their vote,” Paxton said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that certain county election officials have refused to perform their duties and have instead unlawfully gone beyond the Legislature’s determination of who is eligible to vote by mail. My office will continue to defend the integrity of Texas’ election laws.”

Earlier this month, the Dallas County Commissioners Court voted to allow mail ballots for county residents who are under 65 but fear exposure to the coronavirus. Paxton almost immediately responded that the county was acting “unlawfully.”

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, a Democrat who represents southern Dallas and sponsored the resolution to expand mail voting, said Wednesday he had not seen Paxton’s request. Still, he said it was “prudent” to move forward with voting by mail.

“All the surveys say that most people want to vote by mail,” he said. “We’re just taking a page out of the Republicans’ book — it used to be mantra.”

Paxton’s request is the latest move in an ongoing legal battle over how to vote safely during a global pandemic. Urgency to resolve the issue has grown as the July 14 primary runoffs draw closer. The state’s lawyers asked the Supreme Court to respond to its petition within 14 days.

The Texas Democratic Party and voting rights groups successfully sued the state to force election officials to allow mail ballots for people who feared catching COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, if they voted in-person. Paxton appealed that ruling last month and has now asked the state’s highest court to prevent local officials from allowing mail ballots for people whose only qualification for mail voting would be fear of exposure to the virus.

Democrats bristled at Paxton’s latest action.

“After a month of thousands of mail-in ballot requests sent by Texans who are under the age of 65, Paxton now wants to upset the election process,” said Chad Dunn, the party’s general counsel. “Apparently, none of the counties agree with Ken Paxton’s view that everybody under age 65 has to vote in person during a pandemic and the court shouldn’t either. The Legislature provided for vote by mail in these pandemic circumstances.

“Whether the state courts or the federal courts resolve the matter, a citizen’s right to vote will be protected,” he said.

In April, State District Judge Tim Sulak, a Democrat, ruled that people who feared exposure to the coronavirus during in-person voting qualified to vote by mail through the state election code’s disability clause.

Paxton, a Republican, has argued that fear alone does not qualify a voter for a mail ballot. Only people with an illness or physical disability that would prevent them from going to the polls qualify under the disability clause, state attorneys argued.

Paxton appealed Sulak’s ruling to the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston, arguing that Sulak did not have jurisdiction to issue such a ruling. He has asked that court to vacate Sulak’s order and dismiss the case.

Earlier this month, Paxton told election officials across the state that Sulak’s order was stayed during the appeal and that they could be punished for offering mail ballots to people who feared exposure to the virus.

The plaintiffs in the case said the order remained in place and said Paxton needed a judicial order to be able to enforce any punishment.

Paxton said actions by election officials to expand mail voting were “not only unlawful, they are unnecessary” because the state is already taking precautions for voting during the pandemic. Earlier this week, Gov. Greg Abbott extended the early voting period — from 10 days to 20 — and allowed for the extension of early voting hours in any election scheduled for July 14, the date of the primary runoffs.

Next week, Secretary of State Ruth R. Hughs will announce recommendations for protecting poll workers and voters, Paxton said.

“State officials, in other words, are working diligently to preserve the integrity of elections by safeguarding in-person voting,” he wrote. “Respondents seek to undermine those efforts.”

The battle over the expansion of mail voting has fallen under party lines in the last decade, with Republicans saying the practice leads to increased voter fraud and Democrats saying it extends the franchise to underrepresented populations. Voting rights experts say voter fraud is minimal and does not happen on a large scale.

The Texas Democratic Party has also filed suit in federal court to force the state to expand mail-in voting.

The legal battle does not have an impact on other qualifications for voting by mail, which are: being over 65 years old, being away from a place of residence during a voting period and being in jail.

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Staff writer Nic Garcia in Dallas contributed to this report.

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©2020 The Dallas Morning News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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