The Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked a push to expand vote-by-mail to registered voters in the state amid the pandemic, saying that a lack of immunity to the coronavirus does not count as a “disability” for which a voter can apply for a mail-in ballot.
“We agree with the State that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a ‘disability’ as defined by the Election Code. But the State acknowledges that election officials have no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face,” the opinion delivered by Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said.
The Texas Supreme Court had previously halted the issuing of mail-in ballots using the state’s “disability” election provision in five counties – Dallas, Cameron, El Paso, Harris and Travis – after Paxton filed a petition for the court to step in.
Texas law requires that those under the age of 65 provide an excuse – either a disability or that they will be out of the county or confined – when applying for a mail-in ballot. The state election code defines “disability” as “a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.”
Paxton hailed the decision as he has repeatedly argued that expanded application of a “disability” could lead to voter fraud.
“Election officials have a duty to reject mail-in ballot applications from voters who are not entitled to vote by mail. In-person voting is the surest way to maintain the integrity of our elections, prevent voter fraud and guarantee that every voter is who they claim to be,” he said in a Wednesday night statement.
The decision was immediately met with backlash from the Texas Democratic Party, which has been the lead plaintiffs in the ongoing federal and state cases to expand vote-by-mail to the state’s younger electorate.
“Now, unless the federal court steps in, because of the Texas Republican Supreme Court, voters will have to either risk standing in line and contracting the coronavirus or they’ll risk prosecution by indicted Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton and his grand juries for simply requesting a mail-in-ballot,” said Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa following the ruling.
The decision comes as voting becomes a flashpoint in the coronavirus pandemic. Democrats have pushed for additional access to mail-in voting as Americans are increasingly nervous about going to the polls in person. States that held in-person primaries during the initial weeks of the outbreak saw drastically reduced voter turnout. But Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have resisted those calls due to fears over voter fraud.
Meanwhile a federal court just last week ruled that Texas voters afraid of catching the novel coronavirus can request absentee mail-in ballots due to the pandemic. That decision was appealed by Paxton as well, and was temporarily halted pending the decision of a federal appeals court.
At the same time, the state’s next election is fast approaching. Texas has a July 14 primary runoff election. The last day to apply for a mail-in ballot is July 2.