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Vota Latino

A trifecta of crap from the Fifth Circuit

It’s what they do.

A federal appeals court has ruled for Texas in three lawsuits challenging the state’s voting laws, including mail-in ballot provisions and the elimination of straight-ticket voting.

In a series of 2-1 rulings Wednesday evening, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the lawsuits by civil rights groups, political organizations and voters targeted the wrong state agency — the Texas secretary of state’s office — when they sought to overturn a string of voting laws and practices.

Because the secretary of state is not in charge of enforcing the challenged laws, the agency is protected by sovereign immunity in all three lawsuits, said the opinions written by Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan and joined by Judge Don Willett.

Judge Patrick Higginbotham dissented in all three cases, writing that he believed the majority was splitting hairs by narrowly interpreting which state officers enforce election laws.

The secretary of state is the chief election officer of Texas who is charged by law with protecting the voting rights of Texans “from abuse by the authorities administering the state’s electoral processes,” Higginbotham wrote.

“The allegation in these cases is that the Secretary is failing in that duty. This charge should satisfy our … inquiry,” he said.

Reporter Chuck Lindell first posted about this on Twitter, so if for some reason the Statesman link doesn’t work or gets paywalled, you can see the basics there. Let’s break down the three cases:

A challenge by the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans and two national Democratic organizations sought to overturn a 2017 law that ended straight-ticket voting, also known as one-punch voting because it lets voters select all candidates of a particular political party in one step.

A state district judge barred enforcement of the law, ruling in September 2020 that the change unconstitutionally burdened the right to vote.

See here and here for the background. This one confused me at first, because there had been a basically identical challenge filed earlier in the same court by a different set of plaintiffs that was later dismissed by that judge. I don’t know why the subsequent challenge, which fell under the Democracy Docket umbrella, was more successful, but there you have it. You may recall I was skeptical of this one, and of the three it’s the one I’m the least upset about. The Fifth Circuit’s ruling is here.

A lawsuit by the NAACP and Texas Alliance for Retired Americans sought to block mail-in ballot regulations that require voters to pay for postage and mandate that ballots be postmarked by 7 p.m. on Election Day and received by 5 p.m. on the next day.

The lawsuit also challenged signature-matching requirements and a law that makes it a crime to possess another voter’s mail ballot.

See here and here for the background. I thought this was an interesting suit that made a reasoned case and that in a fair world would have gotten a more thoughtful review by the Fifth Circuit, but that ain’t the world we live in. I don’t know if this subject was addressed in one of the many voting rights bills that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema personally strangled (with the help of all 50 Republicans, of course), but if there’s ever another opportunity to address voting rights at a federal level, this should be an item on the to do list. The Fifth Circuit opinion is here.

A lawsuit by groups including the League of Women Voters of Texas and the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities challenged the process of verifying mail-in ballots by ensuring that the voter’s signature on the outside envelope matches the signature on the vote-by-mail application.

A trial judge granted a detailed injunction limiting the practice in September 2020, but again the 5th Circuit Court stepped in to halt the injunction until the appeal was decided. Wednesday’s ruling vacated the injunction.

See here, here, and here for the background. Remember when signature matching was our biggest concern about mail ballots? Boy, those were the days. Anyway, even though this suit was filed in 2019, that injunction was halted by a different Fifth Circuit panel because it was too close to the election. There’s always, always an excuse. The opinion for this one is here.

The first and third cases were reversed and remanded to the district court “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion”, while the second was reversed and remanded with instructions to dismiss. I’m not quite sure what further proceedings there may be, and it may be that the bigger problems caused by SB1 may make the third case not particularly relevant at this time, I dunno. I assume that since the issue cited by the Fifth Circuit was that the SOS was not the proper defendant, the cases could be refiled with some number of county election administrators as defendants instead. I don’t know how practical that would be, and I also don’t know if this is just a prelude to the Fifth Circuit (or later SCOTUS) ruling that actually you can’t sue those people either, because the whole idea that you can pursue redress in a federal court is just an illusion anyway or whatever. We’ll see if anything does get refiled, but I would not feel particularly optimistic about any of it.

UPDATE: And when I checked Twitter on Thursday, I saw that Prof. Vladeck had addressed my questions.

Always expect the worst from the Fifth Circuit. You’ll almost never be wrong.

Update on that other vote by mail lawsuit

From Daily Kos:

A federal judge has rejected Republican Secretary of State Ruth Hughs’ motion to dismiss a case brought by several Texas voters and civil rights organizations seeking to expand access to absentee voting for the November general election.

Plaintiffs are asking the court to order the state to prepay the cost of postage; require officials to count ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within a few days afterward (currently, they must be received by the day after the election); prevent the state from using arbitrary standards to reject absentee ballots for allegedly non-matching signatures without giving voters a chance to fix any problems; and allow third parties to collect and turn in completed absentee ballots.

Based on a schedule the judge previously set out, a ruling on plaintiffs’ requests is not likely until after Labor Day.

See here for the background. This lawsuit, unlike the TDP lawsuit that is awaiting action from the Fifth Circuit or the age discrimination lawsuit, which is also on hold pending action with the first lawsuit (info per the DKos Elections Litigation Tracker), is not about who is allowed to vote by mail. It is about the barriers that exist for those who are eligible to vote by mail. Here’s a summary of the plaintiffs’ claims, from the court ruling (the first link in my excerpt above):

First, Plaintiffs challenge Section 86.002 of the Texas Election Code’s failure to provide prepaid postage for mail-in voters. Id.; Tex. Elec. Code § 86.002 (“Postage Tax”). Second, Plaintiffs challenge the requirement mail-in ballots be postmarked by 7:00 p.m. on election day and then received by the county no later than 5:00 p.m. on the day after the election in order to be counted. See Tex. Elec. Code § 86.007 (“Ballot Receipt Deadline”). Third, Plaintiffs challenge the requirement that voters must submit two signature samples that “match,” according to local election officials, in order to have their early voting ballots counted. Id. § 87.027 (“Signature Match Requirement”). Fourth, Plaintiffs challenge the criminalization of a person assisting a voter in returning a marked mail ballot. Id. § 86.006 (“Voter Assistance Ban”).

The effect of this lawsuit, if the plaintiffs prevail, would be to make it easier for the people who can vote by mail to do so, and would likely reduce the number of ballots rejected for not having a legally accepted signature. That would be fairly small in the aggregate, but it would be quite meaningful for some number of people. The defense had also filed a motion opposing an expedited schedule, which the judge (Orlando Garcia, whom you may recall from previous redistricting cases) also rejected. The last filing in that schedule is for September 4, so perhaps we’ll get a ruling not too long after that. I have also read somewhere – it may have been on Daily Kos, I just don’t remember – that the Fifth Circuit is going to expedite the appeals hearing for the TDP vote by mail case, so who knows, maybe we will get some clarity before November. Doesn’t mean it will be good clarity, but it ought to be something.

Yet another lawsuit over voting by mail

Turns out there are a lot of obstacles to voting by mail in Texas, and so there are a lot of lawsuits being filed by various plaintiffs to rectify that.

A coalition of voters and civil rights groups opened a new front Monday in the legal wars over mail-in voting in Texas during the new coronavirus pandemic.

Several lawsuits already underway challenge state limits on who can vote by mail, but a lawsuit filed Monday dives into the mechanics of mail-in balloting, arguing that existing rules will deprive voters of their constitutional rights in the middle of a public health crisis. In the federal lawsuit filed in San Antonio, five Texas voters with medical conditions, Voto Latino, the NAACP Texas and the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans argue that four existing rules for absentee voting will place undue burdens on the right to vote, or risk disenfranchising Texans, during the pandemic.

First, they’re challenging a requirement that voters pay postage to return mail-in ballots, arguing that it amounts to a poll tax during a public health crisis. Second, they’re challenging a requirement that sets deadlines for when ballots must be postmarked and received, arguing that the window should be extended. Third, they object to a requirement for matching signatures on the flap of a ballot envelope and the signature used on an application to vote by mail, which they argue discriminates against voters with disabilities whose signatures may change. And fourth, they’re challenging restrictions on the assistance absentee voters can get to return a marked ballot.

Naming Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs as the defendant, they’re asking a federal judge to block the state from enforcing the provisions.

“Even if all registered voters are eligible to vote by mail in Texas in the November election, that would not be sufficient to prevent the serious risk of disenfranchisement and threats to public health that will occur if the Vote By Mail Restrictions remain in place in the pandemic,” the plaintiffs, who are backed by the National Redistricting Foundation, wrote in their complaint.

[…]

But the latest challenge brings in voters who already qualify to vote by mail based on their disabilities but who must navigate the provisions for absentee voting in question during the pandemic. Among the plaintiffs is George “Eddie” Morgan, a 63-year-old former nurse in Dallas who has a genetic lung disorder and has been in strict isolation during the coronavirus outbreak in his community.

Morgan receives $19 dollars a week in food stamps and relies on food banks. To obtain postage for a mail-in ballot online to remain in isolation, he would have to purchase an entire book of stamps for $11, according to the lawsuit.

“The Postage Tax’s burden on the right to vote is severe. At best, it requires Texans — millions of whom are vulnerable to severe complications from COVID-19 or have vulnerable loved ones — to pay to vote by mail so that they can avoid exposing themselves to the virus while exercising their right to vote,” the plaintiffs wrote. “At worst, it disenfranchises the millions of Texans who cannot risk exposure to COVID-19 but who also cannot obtain postage to mail their ballots.”

To recap, we have the federal lawsuit filed by the TDP, which has its first hearing this Friday, which argues that the threat of coronavirus qualifies as a disability under the law for anyone who wants to request a mail ballot. We have the federal age discrimination lawsuit, which alleges that the 65-and-over provision for requesting a mail ballot violates the 26th Amendment. We have the state lawsuit, also filed by the TDP on the same grounds, for which a judge has issued an order allowing anyone to request a mail ballot for the July runoff, with a hearing set for later on the merits, which would allow the same for November and beyond. That order is being threatened by Ken Paxton, and the plaintiffs have filed a motion with the Third Court of Appeals to end those shenanigans. Oh, and now a couple of activists have filed a complaint in Dallas County alleging that Paxton’s communication to county election officials constitutes voter fraud on Paxton’s part. I believe that sums it all up.

This lawsuit goes in a slightly different direction. It argues that even if everyone were granted the ability to request a mail ballot today, there would still be problems. In a rational world, with a well-designed election system, of course mail ballots would be postage free for exactly the reasons cited by the plaintiffs, there would be no effort to criminalize helping someone who needs it to fill out their ballot, and signature matching would be done in a fair and efficient manner. We obviously do not live in that world, but maybe we can take a step towards it with this flurry of litigation. At the very least, I hope they’re all losing sleep in the Solicitor General’s office. The Chron has more.