Mail-in voting can continue during pandemic, rules Texas appeals court

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A state appeals court ruled in favor of Texas Democrats and civil rights groups on Thursday, allowing all Texans who fear COVID-19 exposure to vote by mail in upcoming elections.

Last month, a Travis County state district judge issued the same ruling, causing Texas Attorney General Paxton to ask the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on the legal battle. The litigation traveling all the way up to Texas’ highest court now appears likely.

Under normal Texas Election Code, only voters over the age of 65 or with a disability can vote by mail. Texas Democrats, Texas ACLU, Texas Civil Rights Project, and others have argued that fear of contracting coronavirus should count as a disability for Texans seeking to apply to vote by mail. A state district judge agreed, and so did the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in a 2-1 ruling on Thursday.

In a prepared statement, senior Texas ACLU staff attorney Tommy Buser-Clancy said Texans should not have to choose between their health and ability to vote.

“We appreciate the court of appeals’ realization that the Attorney General’s attempts to override judicial decisions are improper, and directly impact voters who are trying to participate in our democracy without having to risk their health,” Buser-Clancy said.

Following last month’s ruling allowing vote-by-mail, counties have begun to prepare for a surge in applications and ballots. In April, Harris County approved $12 million for mail-in ballots. Earlier this month, Dallas County commissioners court voted to allow residents to claim a disability when applying for a mail-in ballot, defying Gov. Greg Abbot and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s orders.

“No question there is fear out there, and there are election officials that just don’t know,” Texas Democratic Party General Counsel Chad Dunn said in a statement. “You can see that they’re asking their county attorneys what to do and county attorneys are having to balance what the judiciary says with what the one executive branch official says. This is extraordinary to have an executive branch official working against judicial orders at both levels of the court.” 

Photo: Niyazz/Getty Images

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