Judge rules to allow more Texans to vote by mail during coronavirus pandemic

State & Regional

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — On Wednesday, a Texas district court ruled that all registered voters can qualify for a mail-in ballot as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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353rd District Court Judge Tim Sulak made the decision on Wednesday afternoon after hearing from the Texas Democratic Party, who originally filed the lawsuit, ACLU of Texas, national ACLU, League of Women Voters and the Texas Civil Rights Project.

Before the court’s ruling, in order to qualify for a mail-in ballot, a voter must:

  • be 65 years or older
  • be confined to jail, without a felony conviction
  • be out of the county during the election period
  • have a disability

The plaintiffs argued that current regulations for mail-in ballots should include people concerned about heading to the polls amid the coronavirus under the disability provision.

Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of Texas Democratic Party, explained, “We feel that that law should be interpreted to mean that if you are practicing social distancing because you are fearful that you may be exposed to this coronavirus, and for that reason, you would be hesitant or would not go vote in-person to a polling place, that you should be allowed to vote by mail.”

The Texas ACLU’s senior staff attorney at the hearing, Edgar Saldivar, made it clear the lawsuit was not to get rid of in-person voting, but rather offer other options if people do not feel comfortable heading to the polls.

“The last thing we want is for people to risk their health and safety when there are options available at this time for them to safely vote without having to put themselves in danger,” Saldivar said.

The Attorney General’s office argued, however, that the provision is already clearly defined, and requires a person to have a sickness, or physical condition.

“Mail ballots based on disability are specifically reserved for those who are physically ill and cannot vote in-person as a result. Fear of contracting COVID-19 does not amount to a sickness or physical condition as required by the Legislature,” Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement Wednesday.

The AG’s office also said state leaders continue to make decisions during the pandemic to adjust, including Governor Greg Abbott pushing back the May primary runoff elections to July.

The state is expected to appeal the court’s decision.

In the interim, Hinojosa is hoping before the lawsuit is able to reach the Texas Supreme Court, state leaders will change their minds.

“Just go forward with the preparation to be able to allow people to vote by mail that, is what our hope is,” Hinojosa said.

Earlier this month, the Texas Democratic Party also filed a lawsuit against Governor Greg Abbott, Secretary of State Ruth Hughes, and others to demand a vote-by-mail election during the crisis. Back in March, the party wrote a letter urging the Secretary of State to allow mail-in ballots for the upcoming May 2 and May 26 elections.

The early April lawsuit was also filed against the Travis County Clerk and the Bexar County Elections Administrator. The party demanded that the leaders follow what they say is Texas law, which allows voting by mail.

To find out if you’re registered to vote or to register, click here.

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