I suppose this was inevitable.
In a letter dated Aug. 27, Keith Ingram, director of elections for the Texas secretary of state, told Harris County to “immediately halt” its plans to send every registered voter in the county an application for a mail-in ballot for the general election. Ingram demanded the county drop its plan by Monday to avoid legal action by the Texas attorney general.
Sending out the applications “would be contrary to our office’s guidance on this issue and an abuse of voters’ rights under Texas Election Code Section 31.005,” Ingram wrote, citing a provision of state law that gives the secretary of state’s office power to take such action to “protect the voting rights” of Texans from “abuse” by local officials responsible for administering elections.
“Providing more information and resources to voters is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said in response to the state’s letter. “We have already responded to the Secretary of State’s Office offering to discuss the matter with them.”
The secretary of state’s office has advised counties seeking to proactively send out applications to limit those mailings to voters who are 65 and older to avoid confusion about eligibility. But there appears to be no state law that specifically prohibits sending out applications to all voters.
On Friday, Harris said the county’s mailing would also include “detailed guidance to inform voters that they may not qualify to vote by mail and to describe who does qualify based on the recent Texas Supreme Court decision.” While the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus alone doesn’t qualify a voter for a mail-in ballot based on disability, a voter can consider it along with their medical history to decide if they meet the requirement. The Texas election code defines disability as a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents a voter from appearing in person without personal assistance or the “likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.”
“Voters will, of course, make their own decisions about if they qualify to vote by mail,” Hollins said.
In his letter, Ingram raises the prospect that sending applications to all voters, including those who do not qualify, may cause confusion among voters and “impede the ability of persons who need to vote by mail to do so” by “clogging up the vote by mail infrastructure” with applications from voters who do not qualify.
In applying for a mail-in ballot, voters must check off which of the state’s eligibility criteria they meet. (The secretary of state allows any voter to request an application for a mail-in ballot through its online portal without asking whether the voter meets the eligibility requirements.)
See here for the background. As the Chron story notes, Ingram’s plan is to get Ken Paxton involved if Hollins doesn’t back down by Monday. The thing is, though, as both stories note, there’s no actual law that says what Hollins did was illegal. Remember what the State Supreme Court opinion said when the original TDP lawsuit that made the claim that the pandemic itself was a condition that qualified voters for the disability provision in the mail ballot law:
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 decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s, subject to a correct understanding of the statutory definition of “disability”. Because we are confident that the Clerks and all election officials will comply with the law in good faith, we deny the State’s petition for writ of mandamus.
If “the decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s”, and “election officials have no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face”, then what exactly is the problem with an election official giving each voter the explicit opportunity to make that decision for themselves? If you think that the two sentences that wrap around the ones I quoted from make the whole paragraph somewhat contradictory, I understand. Perhaps the lawsuit Paxton is no doubt itching to file would clear that up. The point is, this is not at all clear as the law now stands.
I’ll be honest, it will be all right by me if Hollins does back down, and instead limit himself to sending mail ballot applications to everyone 65 and older, and everyone who applied for a mail ballot in either the March primary or the July runoff. I do think that his effort here has the chance to confuse some folks, and the plethora of voting locations as extended early voting hours goes a long way toward mitigating any concerns about coronavirus risk for in person voting. That said, Hollins has taken a strong stand for making it as easy and convenient to vote as possible for everyone, and it’s shocking how bold that actually is. How is it that such a stand represents so powerful a departure from the way things had always been done? I think from a purely strategic viewpoint, Hollins can walk this back, having made his point and laying down a marker for the next Democratic Legislature in Texas. If he refuses to back down from this very honorable and principled position, everything will be immediately cranked up to 11, and I fear that the distraction will do more harm than good. But whatever Hollins does choose to do next, he has shown us what voting in Harris County, and all of Texas, should look like. Let’s not forget that.