A previous court stay was set to expire 5 days following a district court ruling in a pending lawsuit. Last Friday, Judge R. K. Sandill ruled in favor of Harris County’s interim Clerk Chris Hollins in a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, which would have allowed the previous stay to expire Wednesday night.
Earlier this year the SCOTX had ruled against a plan to send out unsolicited ballots to all voters, since under Texas election laws only individuals who are over 65 years of age or ill or incapacitated qualify to vote without visiting a polling site and providing identification. Paxton also warned local officials that third parties encouraging voters to illegally claim disability could be subject to prosecution.
Hollins, appointed interim clerk after the sudden resignation of Diane Trautman last May, had intended instead to send mail-in ballot applications to each of Harris County’s 2.4 million registered voters as part of his S.A.F.E. Plan for elections. He claimed that by including a flyer explaining eligibility the clerk and the county could avoid liability in case the mail ballot applications were improper.
Paxton filed a lawsuit arguing that the Harris County scheme would confuse voters, overwhelm ballot processing procedures, and could lead to the disenfranchisement of voters who may not be notified of ineligibility before they could then vote in person.
The attorney general also noted a vast expansion of mail ballot usage would become “ripe material for voter fraud.”
The new stay issued this week prohibits Hollins from sending unsolicited applications pending an appeal to the Court of Appeals and “any proceedings in this Court, and until further order of this Court.”
The SCOTX action is not, however, the final word since the petitions for mandamus and injunction are still pending.
Paxton applauded the court for halting Harris County’s plans.
“I strongly commend the Texas Supreme Court for stopping the Harris County Clerk from sending millions of mail-in ballot applications, which would create voter confusion and jeopardize the integrity and security of our elections,” said Paxton. “The Harris County Clerk knowingly chose to violate Texas election law and undermine election security.”
At the time the stay was announced, the Harris County Commissioners Court was holding a regularly scheduled public meeting and took note of the new action. They voted 3-2 along party lines to approve a contract with the Law Office of Susan Hays to provide legal services in connection with vote by mail litigation, and to pay $1.53 million to Runbeck Election Services to handle mail ballots for the clerk’s office.
The Democrat majority on the commissioners court has also moved forward with a plan to take voter registration and elections operations away from the elected clerk and district clerk and assign those roles to a yet-to-be hired elections administrator.
A second lawsuit against Hollins filed by the Harris County Republican Party, conservative activist and donor Steven Hotze, and candidate for District Court Sharon Hemphill is also pending.
Additionally, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has stayed the expansion of mail-in-voting statewide in relation to a separate lawsuit filed by the Texas Democratic Party that is also pending resolution.
The continued conflict has garnered reaction from HEB grocery store CEO Charles E. Butt, who filed an amicus brief on behalf of Hollins and Harris County saying that many voters would be too anxious about voting in person under the current coronavirus conditions.
Likewise, the League of Women Voters, a technically non-partisan group that lobbies state governments for a variety of left-leaning issues such as abortion rights and gun control, has also publicly sided with Hollins and Harris County mail ballot expansion plans.
On the other side, Catherine Engelbrecht, founder and president of election integrity watchdog group True the Vote, has supported the Paxton lawsuit and noted that two-thirds of election fraud cases prosecuted by the attorney general are related to mail-in ballots.
“The reality is, the most secure way to vote is to vote in person,” said Englebrecht.
She also encouraged citizens to volunteer in local elections as “the best way to preserve election integrity.”
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan 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.