AUSTIN, Texas — Gov. Greg Abbott ordered Texas counties Thursday to close multiple locations where voters can drop off completed mail-in ballots.
As an election security measure, Abbott said, counties will be limited to one drop-off site where poll watchers — designated by political parties and candidates — must be allowed to observe ballot deliveries by voters.
The new order takes effect Friday and modified Abbott’s July 27 order that acknowledged the pandemic’s danger by adding six days of early voting and waiving a state law that limits mail-in ballot drop-off to Election Day only.
Democrats blasted the change as a thinly veiled effort to suppress votes in a tight election.
“Republicans are on the verge of losing, so Gov. Abbott is trying to adjust the rules last minute,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.
“Courts all over the country … have held that it is too late to change election rules, but our failed Republican leadership will try anyway,” Hinojosa said in a statement. “Gov. Abbott and Texas Republicans are scared. We are creating a movement that will beat them at the ballot box on Nov. 3, and there’s nothing these cheaters can do about it.”
Abbott’s order came the same day Travis County opened four drop-off locations — Harris County opened 12 locations Monday — as election officials worked to meet unprecedented demand for mail-in voting during the pandemic. In addition to being a convenience, the multiple drop-off sites were intended to alleviate concerns about the efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service.
At Travis County’s drive-thru sites, including three downtown, voters must deliver their own mail-in ballots after showing a photo ID and signing a roster. If limited to one drop-off site, that will be at the 700 Lavaca Parking Garage in downtown Austin, officials said.
To vote by mail, Texas residents must first apply for a ballot. Applications are due at least 11 business days before Election Day, which is Oct. 23.
Under Texas law, you can vote by mail if you are a registered voter who is:
— 65 years of age or older.
— Out of your county of residence during the entire election period.
— Sick or disabled.
— In jail but eligible to vote.
— Members of the armed forces, their dependents and citizens outside the U.S.
Residents can visit VoteTexas.gov for more information and to print out an application to vote by mail or to request that an application be mailed to you.
Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said she is looking into a legal challenge of Abbott’s order, which she said arrived without warning and appeared “intended to be disruptive — and it is.”
“This is a deliberate attempt to manipulate the election,” said DeBeauvoir, a Democrat.
Thus far, 71,000 Travis County voters have requested a mail-in ballot, a figure that could approach 100,000, easily dwarfing the 27,000 absentee ballots cast in the last presidential election, she said.
At one of the county drop-off sites on Airport Boulevard, Dora Hernandez, 71, was among a half-dozen voters who submitted a ballot during a 30-minute period in the late morning Thursday.
Hernandez said she was worried that her ballot would get lost in mail.
“I actually considered voting in person, and even though I’m a healthy person and I don’t have any underlying issues, I’m still an older woman and that worried me,” she said. “That’s the only reason I did it this way.”
Limiting the number of dropoff sites will affect large urban counties that are strongly Democratic or trending in that direction, and the Texas Democratic Party said Abbott’s new order appeared targeted at a “rising Texas electorate.”
“It’s a miscalculation on Abbott’s part,” party spokesman Abhi Rahman said. “Texas Democrats will crawl through broken glass to vote these cheaters out of office.”
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, also predicted that the move would backfire. “This sabotage is not about election security,” he said. “It is about Republican political insecurity.”
But Abbott said he had a duty to voters and the state to take action to protect election integrity.
“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,” Abbott said.
Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston said requiring poll watchers to observe ballot delivery was an important step.
“It is essential that the public be able to trust in the integrity of the election system, and as a former elections official it is bewildering to me that any county clerk would resist having poll watchers present to watch election officials do their job under the Texas Election Code,” Bettencourt said.
But Chris Hollins, Harris County’s Democratic clerk, and DeBeauvoir of Travis County said poll watchers were welcome at all drop-off locations.
Hollins said Abbott’s change of heart will upend weeks of advertising that touted multiple drop-off locations in the state’s most populous county.
“Going back on his word at this point harms voters and will result in widespread confusion and voter suppression,” Hollins said via Twitter. “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.”
Abbott modified his order amid discontent from the right wing of his party over the way he has handled the pandemic with orders closing businesses, requiring face masks in many parts of Texas and expanding early voting ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
Several GOP leaders — including Agriculture Secretary Sid Miller, Texas Republican Party Chairman Allen West, two state senators and four state House members — have asked the Texas Supreme Court to void Abbott’s order that added six days of early voting and allowed mail-in ballots to be hand delivered before Election Day.
The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the challenge, which argued that Abbott’s order violates state law and the Texas Constitution and must be struck down.
The court also has not ruled on a separate challenge by Harris County Republican activists and candidates that seeks to block Hollins from collecting mail-in ballots before Election Day.
©2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas