Op-Ed: Attorney General’s latest attack on voter access

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Protecting our right to vote, and ensuring that all Texans have safe access to the ballot box is one of the most important duties of our government. Unfortunately, our state officials, led by Attorney General Ken Paxton are working hard to do just the opposite. In a series of lawsuits, he has intentionally misstated the law to make voting less safe during the pandemic and undermine local governments’ efforts to protect voters.

There’s an old saying in politics: “the lower on the ballot, the closer to your doorstep.” That expression reflects the simple notion that local officials have the pulse of the communities they represent.  It comes from a time when Republicans and Democrats alike agreed that the decisions that most affect your everyday life are made in local government.

But now, our state leaders in Austin have made no secret about their desire to undermine local governments’ efforts to protect their constituents. AG Paxton has been a leading figure in the state’s encroachment on local government, focusing on our access to the ballot box.

Earlier this year, when counties and cities across Texas were considering how to hold safe and fair elections without turning polling sites into COVID-19 hotspots, AG Paxton threatened to prosecute local election officials if they advised people to vote by mail to avoid exposure to the virus. His attempt to intimidate voters and local governments led to several lawsuits (funded by our taxpayer dollars), one of which is still being litigated.

In this most recent overreach, AG Paxton sued to block Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins from sending mail-in ballot applications to all Harris County registered voters under the age of 65. The Harris County Clerk put this common sense measure in place because many voters have underlying health conditions that put them at a greater risk of injury or death if they contract COVID-19. 

For example, my brother is a three-time Leukemia survivor, and he and other vulnerable registered voters would very likely not know that the law allows them to determine whether they have a “physical condition” that entitles them to vote by mail during the pandemic. The Harris County Clerk has taken steps to educate voters and help them make that determination, but AG Paxton has callously challenged those measures. The Attorney General would prefer to leave these voters left in the dark, unsure whether to put themselves at risk by voting in person or not vote at all. With this lawsuit, AG Paxton again puts the state at odds with local decision makers, forcing the Harris County Attorney’s Office (the county’s chief civil lawyer) to defend voter rights issues that could impact counties across the state.

This attack on voting rights is part of a broader pattern by State officials to weaken local governments. In 2015, after the Harris County Attorney took a more aggressive approach to hold routine violators of environmental laws accountable, the state passed several laws to make it harder to sue polluters. In 2019, Dennis Bonnen, the Speaker of the Texas House was recorded saying his “goal is for [the 2019 legislative session] to be the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.” A few months ago, when Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a mask order that included penalties for non-compliance, Governor Abbott immediately announced that no county could impose such a fine.

Cities and counties are often the first line of government to respond to local issues.  Whether it’s protecting working people from unjust evictions during the pandemic, helping preserve our health and environment, or administering elections, local officials are often best positioned to address the needs of their communities. To protect that authority, we must fight back against the state government’s unwelcome encroachment into our local matters. Fighting back means electing strong legal advocates in counties across the state. It means counties and cities drawing lines in the sand and standing their ground in court. Our local leaders are and must remain committed to upholding the law and protecting Texans from bullies—even when the bully is in the State House.

Christian D. Menefee is the Democratic nominee for Harris County Attorney 

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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