Voting rights groups were joined by two Texas voters and the state Democratic Party in filing suit against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision on Thursday to restrict hand-delivered absentee ballots.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Austin, was led by the League of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters Texas, and Texas residents Ralph Edelbach and Barbara Mason.
“In the midst of an election that is already underway, forcing such new burdens on voters who relied on a different set of election rules to make their voting plan, is unreasonable, unfair, and unconstitutional,” the plaintiffs said.
Ralph Edelbach, 82, who lives in Cypress in Harris County, said he planned to vote by mail in this year’s election. Under Abott’s July 27 order that expanded locations for the hand-delivery of absentee ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic, Edelbach’s new drop-off location was 16 miles away. Thursday’s decision to restrict counties to one location, leaves Edelbach 36 miles away from the drop-off.
Domingo Garcia, LULAC national president, said in a statement that Abbott’s order “is disgraceful, unlawful and the worst type of third world politics or something that you would expect in a country like Russia or China, not Texas or the United States.”
“Every fair-minded American who respects the Constitution should honor the right of all citizens to have their voice heard. Shame on Texas if it stands by and allows this to happen,” Garcia said.
Harris County, which includes Houston, is the largest populated county in the state — though voters throughout the state like Mason, could be forced to drive more than an hour to deliver their ballots.
Mason, 71, lives in Austin, which is in Travis County. Under the governor’s order, Mason “will need to drive approximately 30 minutes each way to drop off her ballot, as well as the time that she will need to spend waiting to reach the front of the drop off line,” the plaintiffs say in the suit.
“Ms. Mason is also concerned that by having to spend additional time trying to return her ballot at the single drop off location, she may be forced to unnecessarily expose herself to COVID-19.”
The plaintiffs argue that the threat of contracting COVID-19 disproportionately affects Latino voters in Texas. The state has reported more than 780,000 cases of COVID-19 to date. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Latinos account for 39 percent of the state’s population.
“There’s a lot of fear in the community right now, but more importantly there’s confusion,” Luis Vera, LULAC general counsel, told NBC News.
Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa called Abbott’s order “a desperate Republican attempt to hold onto power.”
“Cutting these mail-in voting locations was wrong and done solely to attempt to steal the election from the rising Texas electorate,” Hinojosa said. “A county, like Harris County, with more than 4.7 million Texans should have more than one hand delivery location.”
Abbott spokesman John Wittman took issue with allegations that the governor was limiting voting and said instead that the governor has expanded access to voting.
“Before the Governor’s executive order, Texans who wanted to vote by mail could either mail their ballot or submit it in person on Election Day only. Because of COVID-19, the governor’s executive order increased the time period during which voters can submit their mail in ballot in person to include anytime leading up to Election Day,” Wittman wrote in an email toNBC News. “That time period did not exist under current law. Moreover, the only ballots subject to this order are mail in ballots. Most of those ballots are in fact submitted by mail. The additional time provided for those who want to submit their mail in ballot in person is sufficient to accommodate the limited number of people who have traditionally used that voting strategy.”
The League of Women Voters Texas did not respond immediately for comment.