HOUSTON—Texas Democrats are planning to take Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) to federal court over his controversial move on Thursday to shutter locations across the state where voters can drop off their mail-in ballots to be counted for the general election.
“We’re in a big war right now with the state of Texas,” Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, told The Daily Beast. “We’re probably going to be filing suit on that in the next day or so.”
Abbott announced Thursday that effective immediately until the Nov. 3 election, each county in Texas can only operate one site where voters are allowed to submit their mail-in ballots. Abbott said the move would “strengthen ballot security protocols.”
“The State of Texas has a duty to voters to maintain the integrity of our elections,” Abbott said. “These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting.” A spokesperson for Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the potential for a legal challenge to the governor’s order.
Election officials in Texas and nationwide have incorporated ballot drop-boxes as an important part of their plans to make voting safe and secure in an election year that is expected to see record turnout against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic.
Some of Texas’ largest counties had announced that voters would have the option of using multiple drop-off locations: in Harris County, home to 4.7 million residents and the city of Houston, the fourth largest city in the U.S., officials had set up a dozen sites where voters could hand in their ballots.
Chris Hollins, the top elections official in Harris County, said in a statement that Abbott was “going back on his word” to give Texas voters more options to vote safely during COVID-19, and that the county’s multiple drop-off sites had already been advertised publicly for weeks.
“Our office is more than willing to accommodate poll watchers at mail ballot drop-off locations,” said Hollins. “But to force hundreds of thousands of seniors and voters with disabilities to use a single drop-off location in a county that stretches over nearly 2,000 square miles is prejudicial and dangerous."
The League of United Latin American Citizens, a national Hispanic advocacy group, also said it was filing a lawsuit, alleging Abbott was trying to “suppress the state’s Hispanic vote.”
Texas Democrats said that the move from Abbott is a clear signal of GOP fears that they’re in danger of losing key races in Texas, particularly down-ballot.
“It tells you that they’re scared,” said Hinojosa. “They know they’re in trouble in the state. All the polling out there shows that they’re in trouble. That they’re likely going to lose the state House, they’re likely going to lose a lot of congressional seats, and even [Senate candidate] MJ [Hegar] is in contention, she’s within the margin of error.”
Julián Castro, who was the mayor of San Antonio from 2009 to 2014 and ran for the Democratic nomination this cycle, told The Daily Beast on Thursday that the decision was made by “a nervous man doing the bidding of two other nervous men”—referring to President Donald Trump and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), whom Hegar is challenging.
Recent polls have shown a tightening race in Texas, with Trump barely leading Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Cornyn’s lead narrowing over Hegar. Democrats are also targeting several U.S. House seats in the state’s shifting suburban areas, looking to build on the districts they flipped in 2018.
“The Republicans wouldn’t be pulling these maneuvers if they didn’t see Texas slipping away from them. In that sense, this is one encouraging sign they see what we see, which is that Texas is turning over,” said Castro.
While Castro was hopeful that courts might be sympathetic to a legal challenge against the order, he worried that the announcement itself, even if overturned, could have the effect of voter suppression.
“It causes a problem regardless of whether Abbott succeeds in limiting these drop-off boxes or not,” he said. “It creates confusion.”
Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said he’s not sure how the governor’s proclamation will prevent illegal voting. The majority of mail-in ballots that would be delivered in person come from elderly and disabled voters, Borel said.
“It’s a mystery what he’s trying to truly accomplish here,” Borel said. “Why would we want to–late in the game–come in and restrict the number of valid drop off locations during a pandemic during which older adults and people with disabilities are considered at the highest risk?”
Democratic candidates themselves are similarly skeptical. Julie Oliver, the Democratic nominee challenging Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX) in the state’s 25th District, echoed the point that Abbott’s move was meant to sow confusion, calling it “naked voter suppression.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Taylor noted that since ballot drop-offs begin on Oct. 5, people have time to adjust. But she said “it’s going to be a hassle if one location is much farther for [voters] to drive to than before” and said her campaign is encouraging people to vote early and in person if they are not at increased risk of contracting the coronavirus.
“We’ll continue to let people know what their options are, and just help them work through their voting plan,” said Taylor, who is running to represent a sprawling 13-county area that includes Austin’s Travis County and Fort Worth’s Tarrant County. In Travis, four drop-off locations for mail-in ballots were supposed to be available.
Abbott’s proclamation comes one week after a group of Texas Republicans led by conservative activist Steven Hotze asked the Texas Supreme Court to halt Abbott’s move to extend both early voting and the period that people could deliver their absentee ballots in person.
Hotze’s petition for Writ of Mandamus was also filed on behalf of Allen West, chairman for the Republican Party of Texas, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, and six current members of the Texas legislature.
It seems few counties designated more than one in-person drop off location for ballots. Tarrant County, which includes Fort Worth, is the third largest in Texas by population and only had one designated box. The same is true for Hidalgo and Webb, two large counties on the border.
The Tarrant County Democratic Party posted on Twitter that they asked for more ballot drop off locations, but the county elections officials declined.
“In a flippable county with close to 1.5M voters, by which 60K vote by mail ballots have already been sent, we have to make due,” the party said on Twitter. “We are relegated to one drop off location in the midst of COVID and uncertainty over the USPS system because Texas Republicans know they'll lose.”