AUSTIN, Texas — A federal judge ordered Texas officials to change the way mail-in ballots are rejected for signature violations, ruling that the current process violates the Constitution because voters are not given an adequate chance to correct problems.
U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia gave the Texas secretary of state 10 days to change the process to ensure that the right to vote is protected for those who choose to cast ballots by mail.
“Those rights are vitally important to a functioning democracy,” Garcia wrote.
In the midst of a pandemic, election officials are bracing for the unprecedented use of mail-in voting for the Nov. 3 general election, giving Garcia’s ruling greater urgency that will require quick action to implement. Applications for a mail-in ballot are due at county offices by Oct. 23.
When a mail-in ballot is received, county election officials compare the voter’s signature on the envelope to the signature on file with the voter’s application to vote by mail.
Under Garcia’s order, issued Tuesday evening, officials cannot reject a ballot for a signature mismatch unless the voter is notified and has a chance to correct or “cure” the problem.
Specifically, Garcia ordered Secretary of State Ruth Hughs to inform county officials that:
— Before a ballot can be rejected, officials must compare signatures on file for the previous six years.
— If voters provided a phone number, officials have one day to try at least once to notify them about the pending rejection of the ballot and advise them on how to address the problem.
— Other voters must be mailed a notice of rejection within one day that includes information on how to correct the problem.
For voters who confirm that they signed their ballots, election officers must pursue a challenge on their behalf, said Garcia, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton.
Under state law, local officials must canvass, or certify, voting results no later than 11 days after an election, which Garcia said should provide the time needed to address his ordered remedies.
The order applies only to the Nov. 3 general election. Garcia said he will set a hearing afterward to determine if additional steps should be taken.
The signature-matching system was challenged by civil rights and voting rights groups and two voters who argued that ballots were being needlessly rejected in a subjective process that particularly affected voters whose names had changed and those with a disability that inhibits them from writing consistently.
Garcia said he tried to craft a limited order that balanced voting protections with the state’s interest in using signature comparisons to verify the identity of voters and avoid election fraud.
For that reason, Garcia said, he declined several requests in the lawsuit, such as blocking the signature matching process until the Legislature could act. And because the election is looming, the judge declined to change canvassing deadlines or order new documents to be distributed to voters.
Garcia acknowledged that his order “is “not perfect and may not provide completely infallible protections” — noting, for example, that voters traveling between election day and canvassing may lose the chance to cure their ballots. It also may be wise, the judge said, to inform voters about the signature match requirements directly on the documents they sign, and he invited the Texas Legislature to weigh in during the 2021 session, saying the input of lawmakers would be crucial.
The Texas Civil Rights Project filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, League of Women Voters of Texas, Austin Justice Coalition and MOVE Texas Civic Fund.
“The judge saw what we saw in the reams and reams of evidence we submitted: that the right to vote was being taken away from a lot of people, and you can’t do that in a democracy,” said Hani Mirza with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “This ruling will help protect the rights of mail-in ballot voters in the year where we’re going to have more mail-in ballots than ever.”
©2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas