It’s mandamus time! Again.
The Harris County Republican Party on Monday joined a lawsuit asking the Texas Supreme Court to halt the county clerk’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters.
The lawsuit accuses County Clerk Christopher Hollins of ignoring the court’s June ruling on mail ballots and misreading the Texas Election Code.
“Harris County has a rogue clerk who is abusing the application to vote by mail process and compromising the integrity of elections in Harris County,” the suit states. The other plaintiffs in are conservative activist Dr. Steven Hotze, and Sharon Hemphill, a Republican running for judge in the 80th Judicial District Court.
The suit argues that the Election Code states residents must request a mail ballot application, and that absentee voting in Texas is reserved for a small group of voters. Since the code does not specifically permit a county clerk or elections administrator to send mail ballot applications to residents who do not request them, the suit claims this practice is illegal.
Myrna Pérez, director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told the Houston Chronicle on Friday that nothing in the Texas Election Code prohibits Harris County from mailing applications to whomever the clerk chooses.
The plaintiffs also claim Hollins disregarded the Supreme Court’s June ruling, which held that lack of immunity to COVID-19 alone did not qualify voters for a “disability,” one of three conditions that permit a resident to vote by mail in Texas.
Hollins and the Harris County Attorney’s Office have interpreted the ruling to mean that fear of the virus can constitute one of several factors to meet the disability standard. Since the county clerk has no duty to challenge mail ballot applications, this effectively leaves voters to decide for themselves where they qualify.
See here and here for the background. This mandamus makes two arguments, both of which seem incredibly thin to me. One is a rehash of the state Supreme Court opinion in the earlier lawsuit by the TDP to expand vote by mail, in which SCOTX agreed with the state that “lack of immunity to COVID-19” did not qualify as a “disability” under the law that defined vote by mail eligibility. That opinion also concluded that it was up to the voter to determine whether or not they met the definition of “disability” under this law, and that local election administrators have “no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face”. Their claim is that this means that it’s illegal to send people who may not qualify for a mail ballot an application for a mail ballot, which sure looks to me like an enormous leap. I can certainly imagine SCOTX taking an opportunity to clarify their earlier ruling, but I would hope they’d prefer to do it after a case has been argued and facts established by a lower court.
The other argument is an even bigger head-scratcher. Allow me to quote:
III. State Law Requires Voters to Request an Application to Vote by Mail
The Texas Election Code § 84.012 states: CLERK TO MAIL APPLICATION FORM ON REQUEST. The early voting clerk shall mail without charge an appropriate official application form for an early voting ballot to each applicant requesting the clerk to send the applicant an application form.
Limitations on voting by mail and fraud related to the voting by mail process has been the subject of “intense political debate, in this State and throughout the country.” In re State, 602 S.W.3d 549, 550 (Tex. 2020). This Court has not taken “a side in that debate,” and has left the decisions regarding voting by mail “to legislators and others.” Id.
The issue before this Court is not whether the application process for voting by mail is a better policy or worse, but what the Legislature has enacted. It is purely a question of law. This Court’s “authority and responsibility are to interpret the statutory text and give effect to the Legislature’s intent.” Id.
Here’s the law in question. I Am Not A Lawyer, but I am capable of reading an English-language sentence and inferring its meaning. I say the plain meaning of this text is that the intent of the Legislature was to mandate that County Clerks send a mail ballot application to anyone who requests one. The purpose of this law is to remove any discretion from the Clerk’s procedure – in other words, to forbid a Clerk from deciding not to send someone a mail ballot application because the Clerk thinks that person is ineligible or whatever else. I’m hard-pressed to see how this could be interpreted any other way.
The law, as written, does not specify that the Clerk may not send an application to anyone who did not specifically ask for one. Nor does it say that they Clerk may only send an application to those who do. It just says that if a Clerk gets a request for a mail ballot application, the Clerk must send the mail ballot application. What else would it mean?
The relators elaborate on their argument a couple of paragraphs later, and it’s almost as if they’re trying to make my argument:
A. The plain language of Texas Election Code § 84.012 prohibits Respondent from sending applications to all registered voters.
Texas statutes are to be interpreted based on their plain language. See Leland v. Brandal, 257 S.W.3d 204, 206 (Tex. 2008). The Court presumes the Legislature included each word for a purpose and that words not included were purposefully omitted. In re M.N., 262 S.W.3d 799, 802 (Tex. 2008). It also presumes the Legislature understood and followed the rules of English grammar. Tex. Gov’t Code § 311.011; See also Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 140 (2012) (describing the presumption as “unshakeable”).
The plain language of the statute makes it clear that the clerk shall mail the appropriate official application form for early voting only to “applicant[s] requesting the clerk to send the application form.” Id. The Texas Election Code § 84.012 does not allow for the clerk to send applications to all registered voters.
The Legislature’s refusal to add such language is consistent with the Legislature’s desire to curtail fraud associated with voting by mail. If the Legislature had wanted to require the clerk to send the application to vote early to all registered voters, they could have done so. Additionally, if they wanted the clerk to have this option, they could have provided it in the language of the statute. Instead, the Legislature limited the mandate to provide the application only to those who request it.
Emphasis in the original. Note how the word “only” in the penultimate paragraph is not included in the quote from the law. That’s because that word was not included in the law. Like I said, it’s almost as if they agree with me.
I would also point out that if the Legislature really did intend to “limit the mandate to provide the application only to those who request it”, then campaigns and political parties have been violating this law with impunity for decades. I myself would have violated it in 2018 when I participated in HCDP phone banks to remind voters that the HCDP had already sent mail ballot applications to complete them and mail them in. Remember how the TDP recently boasted about sending out zillions of mail ballot applications to voters this year? Or for that matter how County Clerk Hollins sent mail ballot applications to all registered voters 65 and over for the primary runoffs? No one filed any mandamuses over those actions. That’s because the law does not forbid them. Capische?
Now again, the relators here are trying to wedge the door open to allow SCOTX to revisit its opinion from that earlier suit and clarify that no, actually, only people who are Legitimately Disabled (whatever that means) can get mail ballots. That would mean not only making up a new law on the spot but also defining how to enforce it, and while I would not put it past the Supreme Court to try and pull such a stunt, it would be a big goddamn mess if they did so. I don’t think they have it in them, but we’ll see.
One more thing: Do go and give this mandamus a scan – the link from above is to a Quorum Report post, and the mandamus filing is there as a downloadable PDF. Look at how much of the language in this filing is about buzzwords and slogans – fraud! rogue! more fraud! – and how little refers to actual law and precedent. Now compare it to the mandamus writ in the attempt to knock Libertarian candidates off the ballot, which whatever you may think of it is sober, to the point, and full of citations. Maybe it’s just me, but the former comes off as desperate, while the latter has some faith in its arguments. Campos has more.