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In July, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, extended the early voting period for the November election by six days. In response, several top Republicans in the state sued him over what they saw as overreach. The Texas Supreme Court ruled against them, upholding the early voting extension, but last week Abbott seemed to go back on his earlier decision to expand voting. He ordered that each county could have only one drop-off location for ballots, forcing Travis and Harris counties—two Democratic strongholds—to shutter some sites they had already opened. In response to that, several civil rights groups sued the state over what they saw as voter suppression. Those lawsuits are making their way through the courts now, and their outcomes could play a big role in who wins the election in Texas.
To make sense of all this, I talked to Emma Platoff, a politics reporter for the Texas Tribune, on Thursday’s episode of What Next. We discussed how the state got into this mess, what role partisan politics play in it, and what impact the governor’s orders might have on voter turnout. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: I want to go back to the beginning of the legal battles in Texas. Can you walk me through the back-and-forth decisions that have been made?
Emma Platoff: All along we’ve had voting rights groups saying we need more polling places, we need more time, we need all of these safety protocols at the polling places. One of the earliest lawsuits we saw on this was whether Texas would have to expand its unusually limited criteria for who qualifies for an absentee ballot. In Texas, to qualify for an absentee ballot, you have to be either 65 or older, confined in jail but otherwise eligible, out of the county during the election period, or cite a disability. One of the earliest legal questions was what does it mean to have a disability during this year? If I am a person who is vulnerable to COVID-19, either just because I haven’t had it before or because I have a comorbidity that could put me at risk for a really bad case—I’m diabetic or I have asthma or I’m obese—is that a disability?
The Texas Supreme Court said earlier this spring that a lack of immunity to COVID-19 alone does not qualify as a disability for the purposes of the election code. But they said voters can take into account lack of immunity to the virus, along with their personal health history, to decide for themselves whether they qualify. So that is a pretty confusing take. … You are supposed to decide for yourself whether you’re eligible.
And we live in a state where Republican elected officials, both the Texas attorney general’s office and local county district attorneys, have demonstrated that they want to push the envelope on who they can prosecute for voter fraud. So if you’re a voter trying to decide, am I eligible under these confusing and strict criteria, you also have to take into account, am I going to be prosecuted if I make the wrong decision?
The state itself is taking on a different role here, more as a referee. The next question fell to the counties, which administer elections: How do we accommodate all these voters dropping off their ballots early?
There are counties in Texas with fewer than 200 residents, so maybe it’s a little bit less important in a place like Loving County in West Texas than in Harris County, where there are something like 2.4 million registered voters. Places like Harris County, home to Houston, and Travis County, which is home to Austin, said, We think this is a really important option to take advantage of. We’re going to set up multiple drop-off application sites just to give voters as many options as possible about where they’ll deliver their ballots.
Harris County announced 12 ballot drop-off locations. Travis County announced four. How did the decision to open up these additional drop-off locations become a full-blown controversy?
I think you trace it back to the lawsuit from Houston Republicans. … They said there’s nothing in the state law that allows Harris County to have a dozen locations, and they’re accepting them too early, and early voting is starting too early, and the Texas Supreme Court needs to tell them you can’t do any of that. So the Texas Supreme Court went to the Texas Attorney General’s Office, which is sort of a routine thing just for a legal opinion: Do you guys think that this lawsuit has any merit? Do you think Harris County is doing anything wrong here? And the Texas attorney general—these are attorneys for the state who work for a Republican elected official—said, No, this looks fine to us. This seems to be in line with what we’ve heard from the governor. We don’t take issue with these plans.
But the day after Harris County’s plan got approval from attorneys for the state, Gov. Abbott acted to basically change the rules … his own order from late July.
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How does he avoid being a flip-flopper here? It just seems like he opened the door to more people voting in different ways, and now he’s closing it.
He definitely has not avoided criticism for being a flip-flopper here. The governor has been taking heat on both sides for months. There are Republicans who are saying, Why are you expanding voting at all? And there are Democrats and civic rights groups and voting advocates who are saying, Why aren’t you doing more to expand voting? So he’s in a difficult position, certainly.
But I think the reason that most people looked at this with raised eyebrows was the rationale he gave. What the governor said was this is an important measure to ensure election security, basically to ensure we don’t have any voter fraud. And I think this is an important time to just explain what the rules are in Texas.
In a lot of states, you can just drop off your ballot in something that looks like a mailbox, maybe it’s in front of the town hall or a local church, something like that. That is not what we’re talking about in Texas. If you want to deliver your absentee ballot in Texas, you need to bring an approved form of identification. You can only bring your own. You are going to speak to a person who is going to verify that you are who you say you are and check your approved form of ID. This is not really a process that allows for rogue actors to be delivering the fearmongered-about dozens of ballots at a time. That’s just not a possibility in the state.
So when the governor said we can’t have all of these locations open because it will lead to election fraud, my first question was how? What evidence do you have that having 12 locations instead of one location is going to bring massive voter fraud in a place like Harris County? They have never answered that question, and they have never provided any evidence that it would, and in fact voting rights experts say there is no evidence that it would.
What’s the evidence about how these closings could have an impact on who is voting?
We’ve already had four lawsuits challenging the governor on this issue, and they have some really interesting plaintiffs. A lot of these are folks who are older, who wanted to deliver their absentee ballots in person. And there’s a plaintiff in one of the cases who lives in Cypress, which is outside Houston, and he’s an 82-year-old man. He was planning to deliver his ballot to a drop-off location that was something like 15 or 16 miles from his house. But after the governor’s order, that location has been closed. And so driving to the only location that’s left in a kind of central part of Harris County, which is not convenient for him, is going to mean a 90-minute round-trip car ride.
For him, that’s an inconvenience. But for a disabled voter, for a low-income voter without reliable access to transportation, for voters of color who we know are always disproportionately hit by these types of limitations, this could be more than an inconvenience. This could mean that they are mailing their ballots instead of delivering them and wondering about whether they’ll arrive in time to be counted. Or in the worst-case scenario, it could mean that some people are not voting at all.
In these lawsuits, are the voters talking about their political affiliation at all?
They’re not. Mostly they’re talking about their life circumstances: I’m an older voter. It’s hard for me to get around. Things like that. They are talking about race and ethnicity, which we know is an important part of the conversation when we’re talking about any limitations on voting rights and voter access. I do think the partisan question is an important one to raise, though. We know that the governor is a Republican. We know that the two counties most affected by his order are two of the state’s most important Democratic strongholds, the counties that include Austin and Houston, which are huge blue cities in the state. So I think it’s impossible to ignore the question of, if any voters are being inconvenienced or disenfranchised by these decisions, which voters are they?
So the fight over ballot access in Texas still isn’t over. But the election has already started.
Absentee ballots are being mailed. Some have already been turned in. We’re a week out from early voting. We’re very close to the deadlines here, so it’s frightening for election administrators. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to use that word because they are having to make so many adaptations in running what are essentially just giant organizational debacles. How do you safely get 2 million votes cast during a pandemic? These are huge, huge questions, and so having to grapple with these changes so close to Nov. 3 has been really a challenge for them.
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