Under Texas law, voters who want to drop off their completed absentee ballots in person can normally do so only at an election clerk’s office while the polls are open on Election Day. Anticipating a surge in absentee voting because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued an order on July 27 that extended in-person early voting by six days and allowed completed absentee ballots to be delivered before Election Day.
County governments responded to Abbott’s July 27 order by establishing multiple sites for their residents to use to drop off absentee ballots. Harris County, for example, is the home of Houston and the most populous county in Texas, with over 4 million residents; it is 1,777 square miles, larger than the state of Rhode Island. Harris County created 11 drop-off sites, while Travis County – with 1.2 million residents – created four sites.
On Oct. 1, Abbott issued a second order limiting each county to one drop-box site per county and requiring counties to close any existing sites that they had already created. Two civil rights groups, the Texas League of United Latin American Citizens and the National League of United Latin American Citizens, and the nonpartisan League of Women Voters went to court, along with two Texas voters who want to deliver their absentee ballots at one of the drop-off sites because of concerns about the timeliness of the mail. They contended that the limits on in-person drop-off locations impose a significant burden on voters who are older, sick or disabled – and who are therefore at higher risk for serious complications from COVID-19. Moreover, they added, the governor’s Oct. 1 order disproportionately affects the state’s more populous counties, which have more Black and Latino residents than the state average. As a result, they alleged, the order violated both the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act.
U.S. District Judge Robert Pittman agreed, issuing a 46-page ruling on Oct. 9 that blocked Abbott from enforcing his Oct. 1 order. Pittman found that the Oct. 1 order would create voter confusion and require voters to travel further to deliver their ballots, spend more time waiting in line to deposit their ballots, risk exposure to COVID-19 while delivering their ballots or, alternatively, run the risk that their ballots will not be received on time if they opt to mail their ballots. “These burdens,” Pittman added, “fall disproportionately on voters who are elderly, disabled, or live in larger counties.” The Oct. 1 order also creates extra work for election officials, Pittman observed, by requiring them to change their plans, and it increases the possibility that election officials will be exposed to the coronavirus. By contrast, Pittman continued, the state’s suggestion that the limit on drop-off sites is necessary to maintain ballot security is a “pretext.”
The state appealed immediately to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which on Oct. 10 temporarily put Pittman’s order on hold.
The same panel issued an order on Oct. 14 that put Pittman’s order on hold while Abbott appeals – essentially guaranteeing that, unless overturned by the full 5th Circuit or the Supreme Court, the limit on drop boxes will remain in place through the November election. The panel explained that even under Abbott’s Oct. 1 directive, Texas voters who cast absentee ballots still have “many ways” to vote. “These methods for remote voting,” the panel observed, “outstrip what Texas law previously permitted in a pre-COVID world.” The directive, the panel conclude, “abridges no one’s right to vote.”
|Date||Proceedings and Orders|
|October 1, 2020||Complained filed by Texas League of United Latin American Citizens, et al., in district court|
|October 2, 2020||Complaint filed by Laurie-Jo Straty, et al., in district court|
|October 9, 2020||District court order issued suspending ban on additional drop-off sites|
|October 10, 2020||Application for stay of district court decision filed in 5th Circuit by Ruth Hughs, secretary of state of Texas|
|October 12, 2020||5th Circuit order granting application for stay, pending appeal|