A state district judge said on Wednesday that he would move forward with an order to reduce restrictions on voting by mail in Texas in connection with the new corona virus pandemic.
After conducting a video conference in a lawsuit filed by Democrats and state civic organizations, Judge Tim Sulak told lawyers that he would issue a temporary order allowing all voters at risk of being exposed to the corona virus if they directly chose to request an incoming letter. Voting under a portion of the Texas election code allows voting that is not present to voters who cite defects. The verdict, which will almost certainly be appealed by the state, could greatly expand the number of voters who cast ballots by letter in the second round of elections next July.
(Sulak signs official order on Friday to enable voters to request ballots during a coronavirus pandemic by citing disability qualifications permitted in the Texas election code.)
Until now, voting by mail is still limited in the state. Texas citizens who seek absentee ballots that they can fill out at home and send letters must be 65 years of age or older, disabled or sick, leave the area during the election period, or be locked up in prison.
The Texas election code defines disability as “a disease or physical condition” that prevents voters from appearing themselves without the risk of “hurting voter health.” Citing ambiguity in state law about what qualifies as flawed, Sulak agrees that current qualifications can apply to every voter in Texas. The official order has not yet been issued.
The debate about expanding balloting during the coronavirus pandemic has emerged as the latest political fault line between Texas Democrats and Republicans, who have opposed easing qualifications for ballot papers.
The ruling was a temporary victory for the plaintiff coalition who brought legal challenges asking the court to clarify the election code. The lawsuit was filed by the Texas Democratic Party and two individual voters under the age of 65 who will try to vote by letter bearing in mind the state of the coronavirus outbreak. They then joined a third individual voter and non-profit organization focused on civic engagement, including League of Women Voters of Texas and Texas MOVE.
“Just as public health experts tell us that we must reduce the curve, reduce the demand for hospital beds and ventilators, we must also reduce the demand for direct selection of people as a matter of practicality, as a matter of public health, and fortunately state law allows for that, “said Chad Dunn, a plaintiff’s lawyer in opening the argument.
During the trial, the plaintiffs offered two expert witnesses – a local doctor and an epidemiologist – who testified about the risk of future virus transmission by direct vote. Meanwhile, the risks associated with ballot papers “can be ignored,” said Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at the Houston School of Public Health.
The Texas attorney general’s office, which intervened in the case, denied the expansion, claiming the disability qualification by mail applies to voters who already have “illness or physical conditions” and not those who are afraid of contracting the disease “whether it be COVID-19 or flu seasonal. ”
Just as the hearing closed, the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton make public become “Informal Advice Letter” which further clarifies what is expected to be a protracted court battle to expand the ballot by post ahead of the second round and November elections.
Paxton stated that a person’s fear of contracting a virus was not enough to meet the definition of disability to qualify for ballots, and those who advised voters to submit ballots based on fear could be prosecuted criminally.
“Disability-based ballots are specifically provided to those who are legally ill and cannot vote directly without needing help or endangering their health,” Paxton said in a statement late Wednesday. “The fear of contracting COVID-19 is not the same as a disease or physical condition as required by national law.”
Disclosure: League of Women Voters, MOVE Texas and the University of Texas have become financial backers of The Texas Tribune, a non-profit, non-partisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters do not play a role in Tribune journalism. Find the complete list here.
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