Texas high court blocks Houston plan to offer mail ballots

FILE - In this June 29, file photo, Harris County election clerk Nora Martinez, left, helps a voter, in Houston. The Texas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, that 2 million Houston voters cannot receive unsolicited mail ballot applications from local elections officials who are dramatically expanding ways to vote in November in the nation's third-largest county, a key battleground in Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip File)

By PAUL J. WEBER
The Associated Press
AUSTIN — The Texas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that 2 million Houston voters cannot receive unsolicited mail ballot applications from local elections officials who are dramatically expanding ways to vote in November in the nation’s third-largest county, a key battleground in Texas.

The decision by the all-Republican court is the latest defeat in a string of losses for Democrats whose efforts to change Texas voting laws during the coronavirus pandemic have largely failed.

Polls show unusually tight races this year in America’s biggest red state, intensifying battles over voting access. Texas is one of just five states not allowing widespread mail-in voting this year. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has resisted calls to expand eligibility and courts have sided with GOP leaders who say fear of catching COVID-19 doesn’t qualify voters for mail-in ballots.

Abbott also continues facing lawsuits, including one filed Wednesday by the Texas NAACP, over his decision last week that barred Texas’ 254 counties from operating more than one drop-off box for absentee ballots, which forced the closure of dozens of drop-off sites in Harris County and other Democratic-led counties.

Mail voting in Texas is generally limited to voters who are 65 years old or older, or who have a disability.

In the ruling, the justices sidestepped the issue of whether mail-in voting was safer in the pandemic, ruling instead that current Texas law wouldn’t allow Harris County to send mass ballot applications.

“The question before us is not whether voting by mail is good policy or not, but what policy the Legislature has enacted. It is purely a question of law,” the court wrote in its ruling.

Democrats, who believe this year’s election is their biggest opportunity in Texas in decades, slammed the decision. “Once again, the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court steps into this election against the interests of voters and a functioning democracy,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.