US judge blocks Texas law that would end straight-ticket voting

©Austin American-Statesman

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, left, greeting President Donald Trump at Austin Bergstrom International Airport in November, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is on the right. - JAY JANNER/Austin American-Statesman/TNS

AUSTIN, Texas — A federal judge on Friday ordered Texas officials to allow straight-ticket voting for the Nov. 3 election, ruling that a state law ending the practice would endanger voters by causing longer lines at polling places during the pandemic.

The ruling, coming only 18 days before early voting was set to begin, will cause problems for election officials who must reprogram voting machine software and reconfigure ballots, U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo acknowledged in her ruling.

“The substantial injury to (voters) is outweighed by the inconvenience,” the Laredo judge wrote.

Garcia Marmolejo had dismissed a similar lawsuit by the Texas Democratic Party in June, saying complaints about the pandemic’s dangers were speculative.

However, a new challenge filed last month by two national Democratic organizations and the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans argued that a worsening pandemic required another look at a law that “recklessly created a recipe for disaster at the polls in 2020.”

On Friday, Garcia Marmolejo agreed, granting a preliminary injunction blocking the law known as House Bill 25, which was passed in 2017 but didn’t take effect until Sept. 1, in time for the 2020 general election.

“Granting this injunction is in the public’s interest,” the judge wrote, calling the state’s rules on voting during the pandemic “perplexing” and adding that straight-ticket voting is more efficient “in a time where any additional time spent in line endangers the safety of voters, poll workers, and others not at the polls.”

The lawsuit argued that for more than a century, straight-ticket voting allowed for faster voting, particularly in urban counties where voters can face 80 or more choices on a ballot.

In 2018, more than 5.6 million Texans, or about two-thirds of voters, cast straight-ticket ballots — using a one-step option to select all candidates for a single party instead of voting for each candidate individually.

Almost every Democrat in the Legislature opposed HB 25, arguing that it presented an unnecessary obstacle to voting. Almost every Republican supported ending straight-ticket voting, saying it would force voters to make more informed choices on down-ballot races.

More Democrats than Republicans tend to vote by straight ticket in the state’s larger counties.

“Time and time again, Republican leadership has tried to make it harder to vote, and time and time again federal courts strike it down,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. “Texas Democrats will have to continue to win at the ballot box to protect the right vote. Until the new Texas majority wipes out these out-of-touch Republicans, Texas Democrats will never stop fighting for Texans in court.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is expected to appeal the ruling, had praised the judge’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit in June, saying then: “Nothing is more vital to preserving our Constitution and the rule of law than the integrity of our voting process, and my office will do everything within its abilities to solidify trust in every election in the state of Texas.”

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©2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas