Texas Supreme Court rules early voting can start Oct. 13

MGN Online

By Emma Platoff and Jolie McCullough
The Texas Tribune

Early voting in Texas can begin Oct. 13, following the timeline the governor laid out months ago, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, rejecting a request from several top Texas Republicans to limit the timeframe for voters to cast their ballots.

In July, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered that early voting for the general election in Texas begin nearly a week earlier than usual, a response to the coronavirus pandemic. But a number of prominent Republicans, including state party Chair Allen West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and several members of the Texas Legislature, challenged that time frame in September, arguing that Abbott defied state election law, which dictates that early voting typically begins on the 17th day before an election — this year, Oct. 19.

Abbott added six days to the early voting period through an executive order, an exercise of the emergency powers he has leaned into during the virus crisis. The Republicans who sued him argued this was an overreach.

The state’s highest civil court, which is entirely held by Republicans, ruled that the GOP officials who challenged Abbott’s extension waited until the last minute to do so, when the governor had already extended early voting in the primary election and announced he would do the same for the general months ago. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht noted also that the election is already underway.

“To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion,” he wrote in the court’s majority opinion.

Justice John Devine was the only justice of eight to dissent from the opinion, saying Abbott’s emergency proclamation extending the early voting period is “potentially unconstitutional” and disagreeing that the lawsuit should have been dismissed based on its timing.

Democrats have urged Texas’ top Republican leaders to expand voting access during the pandemic, in particular by allowing more Texas voters to mail in their ballots — an option currently only available to voters who are 65 or over, confined in jail but otherwise eligible, out of the county during the voting period or who cite a disability. But state Republican leaders have resisted those calls, fighting Democrats fiercely in court on such issues and sticking largely to business as usual.

Abbott’s order to extend the early voting period has been the main way the state adjusted voting procedures during the pandemic. Local officials are also implementing safety precautions at the polls, including getting creative with polling location choices, stocking up on sanitizer and mandating social distancing in lines. Masks are encouraged but not required at polling places — one of a few exemptions Abbott gave from a statewide mask order earlier this year.

Abbott also doubled the early voting period for lower-turnout primary runoff elections held in July.

The court also rejected a similar lawsuit filed by conservative activist Steve Hotze and other Houston Republicans that specifically challenged the early voting extension in Harris County. The Harris County GOP, along with some local Republican candidates and officials, asked the court to shorten the early voting window in the state’s most populous county and prohibit it from accepting absentee ballots until Nov. 3. The suit also challenged Harris County’s plan to open multiple drop-off locations for absentee ballots, but Abbott last week issued an executive order limiting counties to one drop-off location.

Abbott’s limiting order on ballot drop-off locations, issued last week, is already the subject of four federal and state lawsuits brought by voters and voting rights advocates.