Local NewsStatewide NewsHarris County Elections Administrator Sues Over Texas Mail Ballot Application Law

Longoria is asking a federal judge to allow her to send out unsolicited mail ballot applications for the 2022 primary election — a practice prohibited under the state’s election reform laws.
January 5, 2022
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Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria is asking a federal judge to block a portion of Texas election law on mail ballot applications before the 2022 primary elections.

Along with Cathy Morgan, a volunteer voter registrar in Travis and Williamson counties, Longoria filed a federal lawsuit against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a U.S. District Court in San Antonio last month seeking to block portions of the state’s new election reform law known as Senate Bill (SB) 1.

Portions of SB 1 specifically clarify and strengthen state law governing “absentee” or mail-in ballots, which are allowed for voters who will be out of the county during an election, or who are age 65 or older, or who may be ill or incapacitated.

During the 2020 elections, officials in Harris County sought to expand the use of the mail-in ballots and had planned to send unsolicited mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county regardless of eligibility. However, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled in October of 2020 that the Harris County clerk did not have the authority to innovate in such an unprecedented way.

Following the legal dustups between the state and Harris County, in particular, legislators added provisions to the election code that imposed criminal and civil penalties on elections officials who solicit mail ballot applications from voters who have not requested them.  Under SB 1, Longoria and Morgan note they could be subject to six months or more of imprisonment, up to $10,000 in fines, and other “potential civil penalties.”

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Longoria and Morgan argue that since the new law penalizes them for encouraging the use of mail ballots while saying nothing about discouraging use, the restriction infringes on the constitutional right to free speech guaranteed under the First Amendment.

According to a motion for injunction filed last week, Longoria seeks to proceed with sending out the unsolicited mail ballot applications prior to the 2022 primary election slated for March 1. 

On Tuesday, Paxton filed a motion to stay the request from Longoria noting that there are multiple legal challenges to SB 1 pending, and that federal courts have already ordered the consolidation of the various challenges under the La Union del Pueblo Entero v. Abbott case, now known as LUPE.

Paxton notes that Longoria is also a plaintiff in the LUPE case, and that the court’s scheduling orders for LUPE were premised on the plaintiffs’ representation last September that they would not seek injunctive relief before the March primary election.

Accordingly, Paxton argues that consideration of Longoria’s request for injunction should not proceed until the court has made determinations about the consolidated LUPE case and that to have “such closely related cases proceed on separate tracks would waste the Court’s and the parties’ resources.”

Although Longoria’s new lawsuit, which also names as plaintiffs the district attorneys for Harris, Travis, and Williamson counties, targets restrictions on soliciting mail ballots, LUPE includes challenges to multiple aspects of SB 1.

Over concerns about the expanded potential for ballot harvesting and fraud with the use of mail-in ballots, SB 1 also requires individuals voting by mail to supply identification information from a driver’s license or social security card or swear they have not been assigned either form of identification.

Additionally, the law has added penalties for “vote harvesting services,” in which an individual interacts “with one or more voters, in the physical presence” of a ballot or mail ballot application that is “intended to deliver votes for a specific candidate or measure.”

SB 1 also includes prohibitions against other elections practices pioneered in Harris County in 2020, including drive-thru and 24-hour voting. 

Plaintiffs in Longoria’s newly filed lawsuit are represented by no less than 14 attorneys, including Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, along with private attorneys such as Elizabeth Ryan of the New York-based firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges. Ryan and Sean Morales Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University of Law are also listed as attorneys for several plaintiffs in the consolidated LUPE lawsuit. 

Although Harris County Commissioners Court did not discuss Longoria’s lawsuit during Tuesday’s public meeting, the court’s three Democrats — County Judge Lina Hidalgo, and commissioners Rodney Ellis (Pct. 1) and Adrian Garcia (Pct. 2) — outvoted the court’s two Republicans to enact a provision to pay for county officials’ and employees’ legal expenses incurred in connection with a criminal investigation where “such investigation concerns the performance of the official’s or employee’s job duties with the county.”

In addition to ongoing litigation regarding elections procedures, a grand jury has subpoenaed all five members of the commissioners court and multiple other employees and contractors in Harris County in relation to a controversial $11 million COVID-19 vaccine outreach contract awarded to a Democrat strategist.  

Harris County is one of four the Texas Secretary of State’s office has targeted for a full forensic audit of the November 2020 elections. A report on the first phase of the audits indicated that there were more than 3,000 potential non-citizen voters registered in Harris County.  

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Holly Hansen

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.

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