A federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction to block a Texas order limiting absentee ballot drop-off boxes to one per county.
U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman issued the injunction against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Oct. 1 order, arguing in a 46-page opinion (pdf) that the governor’s move violates the equal protection rights of absentee voters in larger counties.
“The public interest is not served by Texas’s continued enforcement of a proclamation plaintiffs have shown likely violates their fundamental right to vote,” Pitman wrote on Oct. 9.
Abbott issued a proclamation directing counties to designate one location for ballot drop-offs, citing concerns about election integrity.
“The state of Texas has a duty to voters to maintain the integrity of our elections,” Abbott said in a statement. “As we work to preserve Texans’ ability to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take extra care to strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state. These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting.”
Democrats denounced Abbott’s order as alleged voter suppression, with voter rights advocates and civic groups launching a lawsuit in federal court. They argued the order was based on security concerns that are invalid and that it violates voters’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Pitman, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, wrote in his ruling that Abbott’s order could be justified if it could be shown that threats to election security were sufficiently valid.
“The state advances only vague interest in promoting ballot security and uniformity, and alleviating voter confusion,” the opinion states. “The court finds that defendants have not presented any credible evidence that their interests outweigh these burdens.”
Pitman’s order also notes that Texas state authorities argued that Abbott’s proclamation serves to clarify confusion caused by a July 27 order. He added, however, that the state “presents no evidence that anyone, let alone voters, were confused by the July 27 order” and that the new order introduces confusion.
“Since Governor Abbott closed previously sanctioned centers, there is confusion: (1) confusion resulting from a voter trying to cast a ballot at a center she thought was open—because it used to be—but which is now closed or (2) confusion resulting from a voter trying to cast a ballot at a center that she thought was recently closed but is now open again,” Pitman wrote.
He also stated in his opinion that, “by limiting ballot return centers to one per county, older and disabled voters living in Texas’s largest and most populous counties must travel further distances to more crowded ballot return centers where they would be at an increased risk of being infected by the coronavirus in order to exercise their right to vote and have it counted.”
Pitman also sided with plaintiffs’ concerns about voter disenfranchisement due to reports that the U.S. Postal Service’s delivery schedules may not align with some state deadlines and so risk ballots arriving late.
“Since Texas state voting deadlines are currently ‘incongruous’ with USPS guidelines on how much time is needed to timely deliver ballots, absentee voters who request mail-in ballots within the Texas timeframe cannot be assured that their votes will be counted,” the opinion states. “The Oct. 1 order imposes a burden on an already vulnerable voting population that is somewhere between ‘slight’ and ‘severe.’”
The judge concluded that returning the status quo is “the more favorable and just choice: it is the only choice that restores the status quo and likely reduces confusion on the eve of an election, and it results in a greater chance that a ballot can be cast.”
The preliminary injunction comes amid expectations of a massive surge in vote-by-mail initiatives amid the COVID-19 pandemic, sparking concerns about election integrity.