Last week Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton warned local officials of possible criminal sanctions for those advising voters to illegally claim disability on applications for ballots by mail.
Paxton’s May 1 advisory to county judges and county elections officials clarifies that Texas election law reserves mail-in ballots for those who have “a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without the likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.”
Therefore, Paxton says only individuals who are ill from COVID-19 would qualify, while mere fear of contracting an illness does not constitute a disability.
Paxton also notes that there has been significant “misreporting and public confusion” on the mail-in ballot issue, and an accompanying press release specifically cites Harris County.
Last week Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman told county commissioners that a Travis County district judge’s injunction ordering acceptance of mail-in ballots for coronavirus fears applied to the entire state, but the attorney general notes that the text of the injunction only pertains to the Travis County clerk, and not to other counties.
Furthermore, Paxton asserts that since the attorney general’s office has appealed the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court, the injunction is effectively stayed until the higher court issues an opinion.
Since current election code still stands, Paxton warns that “third parties” advising voters to apply for a ballot by mail illegally could be prosecuted for election fraud, since the law says a person commits an offense if that person “intentionally causes false information to be provided on an application for ballot by mail.”
Trautman, a Democrat, has publicly stated that the Harris County registrar will accept all ballot by mail applications and not seek to verify the validity of disability claims.
She also last Tuesday persuaded the Democrat members of the commissioners court to approve an additional $12 million to provide mail-in ballots for 2.4 million voters in Harris County, although as Commissioner Jack Cagle (R) pointed out, the largest voter turnout in the county only included 1.3 million ballots.
Although documentation Trautman submitted to justify her $12 million request did not include any details on projected expenditures, she told the court that some of the funds would be used to advertise and inform residents that anyone could apply for a mail-in ballot out of coronavirus fears.
The Travis County lawsuit filed by the Texas Democratic Party is one of several activists have filed to force the state to adopt universal mail-in balloting. There are also lawsuits pending in federal courts in San Antonio, and the Dallas County commissioners are reportedly planning to consider a mail-in ballot initiative this week.
In an op-ed for the Dallas Morning News former state representative Ron Simmons (R-Denton) and senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation noted that mail-in ballots bypass voter ID laws which are supported by 81 percent of Texans.
Simmons also says that mail-in balloting is a risky venture for legitimate voters, and points out that in 2016 some 400,000 mailed ballots did not count due to various errors, while recently in Wisconsin thousands of ballots went missing.
Mail-in ballots also increase opportunities for illegal ballot harvesting. Simmons reports that a woman in Starr County has been arrested multiple times for ballot harvesting, and recently Colleen Vera filed an official complaint with the Secretary of State over a Harris County ballot harvesting operation that involves individuals previously convicted of forgery.
State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) has called the Harris County mail-in ballot plan an overreach, and last week warned, “As a former election official I can verify the Harris County plan is not legal under Texas election code.”
Correction: A previous version of the article incorrectly stated that there was a pertinent lawsuit pending in a federal court in Dallas.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.