Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to close multiple drop-off locations for mail-in ballots across his vast state is bolstering fears President Donald Trump and Republican allies are seeking to suppress the vote in an election in which he is trailing.
The move by the Republican governor, which significantly affects some Democratic areas, came days after Trump again declined to guarantee he would accept America’s verdict on November 3 and called on his supporters to go to polling places to watch closely for irregularities. Trump is also escalating false claims that mail-in voting is susceptible to huge fraud, in an extraordinary threat to the integrity of US democracy by a sitting president.
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A wave of legal challenges to mail-in voting from his campaign and Republicans across the country is also raising the prospect of a possible constitutional crisis after an election Trump says will only be fair if he wins.
Abbott, in a proclamation that sparked outrage among Democrats, on Thursday limited drop-off points for mail-in ballots to one site per county. That means that Harris County – a Democratic stronghold that surrounds Houston, which has a population of 4.7 million and spans 1,700 square miles, according to the US Census Bureau – must cut drop-off locations from 12 to just one by Friday. Travis County, including strongly Democratic Austin, meanwhile, must go from four drop-off locations to one. Some more remote Texas counties are geographically larger and voters could face hours-long drives to drop off their ballot.
The move, which appears blatantly political given how it especially penalizes several Democratic areas, seems likely to disproportionately affect minority voters in a troubling echo of racially motivated voter suppression tactics of the past.
The directive runs directly counter to the idea that making it easier to vote could avoid crowding at polling places as a highly infectious pathogen, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans, stalks the nation. In some states, voters – especially seniors or those with pre-existing conditions – must choose between fears for their health and exercising their Democratic rights.
Abbot blames order on security concerns
Abbott argued that his declaration was vital to ensuring the security of the vote.
“As we work to preserve Texans’ ability to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take extra care to strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state,” he said. “These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting.”
Delivery locations for mail-in votes in Texas were set up amid concerns that changes of protocol at US Postal Service could delay the return of mail-in ballots.
While rare instances of voter fraud from mail-in ballots do occur, experts say it is not a widespread issue in US elections. States have systems and processes in place to prevent forgery, theft and voter fraud. These systems would apply to both absentee ballots and mail-in ballots for in-state voters. Abbott had previously been sued by Republicans who said his extension of early voting amid the pandemic violated state election rules.
Democrats allege voter suppression
After Abbot’s rollback of drop-off locations, Democrats swiftly accused him of voter suppression amid a public health emergency that has killed 16,000 Texans.
“There is no reason for his decision to limit us to one drop box location other than voter suppression,” Judge Lina Hidalgo of Harris County told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on “PrimeTime” Thursday night.
“These are not just drop-off mail boxes on some road somewhere. These are county offices and annexes that have been very thoroughly run.”
The timing of Abbot’s move is especially significant since Democrats are increasingly convinced that changing demographics in Texas could put the state in play in the current and future elections. Multiple polls have shown an unexpectedly tight race between Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Democrats have made Texas ground zero in their efforts to expand their House majority.
New clashes over mail-in voting in Texas came after Democrats pushed back against an attempt by the Trump campaign to limit the time available for voting in the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania.
The state Republican Party asked the Supreme Court to block a lower court opinion that allowed absentee ballots to be counted up to three days after the election, arguing the decision could destroy public confidence in the election system.
The accommodation only applies to ballots that are postmarked by Election Day. Authorities in the Keystone State and across the country are expecting a historic flood of mail-in and absentee ballots with voters concerned about showing up to crowded polling places as the pandemic again begins to worsen.
Also this week, a federal judge rejected the Trump campaign’s effort to stop an expansion of mail-in voting in Montana, where Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is posing a strong threat to incumbent GOP Sen. Steve Daines.
“This case requires the Court to separate fact from fiction,” Judge Dana Christensen wrote in his opinion. “… Central to some of the (Trump campaign’s) claims is the contention that the upcoming election, both nationally and in Montana, will fall prey to widespread voter fraud. The evidence suggests, however, that this allegation, specifically in Montana, is a fiction.”
There are growing fears of voter intimidation at polling places, following Trump’s calls for his supporters to act, apparently unofficially, as poll watchers. And the President’s slowness to unequivocally condemn White supremacists – only doing it on Fox News Thursday night after refusing to do so at Tuesday’s presidential debate – has only fueled those fears. As is a video posted to social media featuring the President’s son, Donald Trump Jr, making baseless election-rigging claims and asking “able bodied” people to join an election security “army.”