In a major win for Texas Democrats and civil rights groups, a district court on Wednesday ruled that Texans could be allowed to vote by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Traditionally, a voter in Texas must be 65 years or older, be disabled, or be out of the country in order to vote by mail. Now, anyone that fears exposure to the coronavirus can vote by mail as an option.
“Today is a victory for all Texans. The right to vote is central to our democracy,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.
Texas Democrats kicked off the lawsuit earlier this month. The lawsuit was quickly joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, Texas Civil Rights Project and other groups.
In order to address the dangers of the pandemic and ongoing elections, the primary runoffs in Texas have already been postponed from May 26 to July 14. The runoffs will decide dozens of races for Congress and local government, with the U.S. Senate race between Democrats MJ Hegar and state Sen. Royce West at the top of the ticket.
It’s likely today’s ruling will be appealed by the state of Texas; moments before the ruling by Judge Tim Sulak of the 353rd Civil District Court, indicted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a letter warning that vote-by-mail is reserved for those with an actual illness or medical problem.
“Fear of contracting COVID-19 does not amount to a sickness or physical condition as required by the Legislature,” Paxton said.
In the same letter, Paxton warned that groups and individuals who advised voters to apply for a mail-in ballot because of the pandemic could be prosecuted under the state’s Election Code.
Common Cause Texas, a voting rights and Democracy watchdog group, said Paxton’s interpretation of Texas law is wrong.
“Everyone who works on voting rights or elections in Texas, including the secretary of state, has said this is a piece of law that is not clear, hence the litigation,” Common Cause Texas Executive Director Anthony Gutierrez said in a statement.
“Clearly, no one knows what this pandemic will look like in July or November and the smart thing to do is to interpret the law in a way that prioritizes public health and protects voting rights,” Gutierrez said.
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