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Texas election workers ask federal court to block rule against soliciting mail ballots

The plaintiffs argue that the new law in effective prevents them from carrying out their duties over fear of criminal prosecution.
Image: People Go To The Polls On First Day Of Early Voting In Texas
A poll worker stamps a voter's ballot before dropping it into a secure box at a ballot drop-off location, in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 13, 2020.Sergio Flores / Getty Images file

Two Texas election workers asked a federal court Tuesday to block part of Texas’ new voting law, arguing that its prohibition on “solicitation” of mail ballots is unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs — Harris County's top elections official, Isabel Longoria, and Cathy Morgan, a volunteer deputy registrar in two other counties — are seeking an injunction after they initially sued this month, calling the mail ballot solicitation provision "manifestly unconstitutional." They are backed by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, a nonpartisan policy group that has tracked voting restrictions for a decade and previously challenged a voter ID law in Texas.

Republican legislators in the state fought with Democrats through multiple legislative sessions this year before they ultimately passed a sweeping elections bill that included numerous restrictions on the voting process. One provision makes it a crime, punishable by imprisonment and a $10,000 fine, for election officials to “solicit” mail ballots.

The law, known as S.B. 1, says election officials can convey “general information” about absentee voting to voters, but Longoria and Morgan argue that, in practice, the law keeps them from doing key parts of their work over fear of criminal prosecution.

"SB 1 is deterring me from engaging in communications that would encourage voters to consider all of their voting options, engaging in outreach to voters regarding the benefits of the vote-by-mail process, educating voters about their rights, and helping voters to submit their respective applications," Longoria said in a declaration filed alongside the injunction request, which was shared with NBC News.

Texas is one of 19 states that enacted restrictions on elections and voting this year, and some states plan to consider restrictions next year. Texas is one of four states that eliminated or limited election officials’ ability to send out mail ballot applications to voters who did not request them. Harris County elections officials tried to send mail ballot applications to all registered voters last year to encourage participation during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is part of a trend that extends beyond Texas,” Sean Morales-Doyle, the acting director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, said after the court filing Tuesday. “This law is one of many that seem pretty clearly to be a retaliation of people exercising their right to vote by mail."

Morales-Doyle said the injunction seeks relief by Feb. 14 so the election workers can encourage voters to cast request mail ballots ahead of a March 1 election. If the injunction is not granted, Morales-Doyle said, the plaintiffs will continue to seek relief by arguing that the law will continue to harm them throughout the year.

He said the effects of the case extend beyond Texas.

“I do think that if we’re able to get that relief, we’re able to get that victory, it should send a message to other jurisdictions in the country that are considering the kind of legislation that Texas passed this year,” Morales-Doyle said.