Elections 2020Local NewsHarris County Plan to Send Unsolicited Mail-in Ballot Applications Struck Down by Texas Supreme Court

The state’s highest court has ruled that Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan to send mail ballot applications to all voters would exceed his authority to conduct elections under the law.
October 7, 2020
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The Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX) struck down an appeals court ruling today that would have allowed Harris County to proceed with a plan to send unsolicited vote-by-mail applications to all of the county’s 2.4 million registered voters.

In the per curiam opinion, the court does not take sides as to whether or not the expansion of mail balloting is good policy, only that the law does not authorize an early-voting clerk, in this case interim County Clerk Chris Hollins, to send unsolicited applications to vote by mail to all voters.

“Because no other election official in Texas is doing or has ever done what the Clerk proposes, his plan threatens to undermine the statutorily required uniform operation of election laws across the state,” reads the opinion.

The court specifically noted that Hollins’ actions would undercut the secretary of state’s duty to “maintain uniformity” in Texas’ elections, and that “the authority vested in Texas counties- and county officials- is limited.” 

The ruling remands the case back to the lower trial court for entry of a temporary injunction “prohibiting the Harris County Clerk from mass-mailing unsolicited ballot applications to voters.”

The Texan Tumbler

During oral arguments last week, Susan Hays, the attorney contracted to represent Hollins and Harris County, argued that county clerks are “free to innovate,” and told the court that a flyer sent with the ballot applications included information on who would be legally allowed to use mail-in ballots.

On behalf of the State of Texas, Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins countered that while a local official has some leeway to manage the administration of elections, Hollins’ plan included unprecedented actions that far exceeded his delegated authority.

According to court filings from the state, most of the applications would be sent to voters ineligible to legally use mail-in ballots. Hawkins also noted that the flyer to be sent with the applications, which are to be pre-printed with voters’ names, included confusing language regarding a unanimous SCOTX ruling affirming legal limits on who may use them.

The informational flyer also tells applicants that voting by mail is the safest way to vote.

The SCOTX opinion issued Wednesday morning notes that the Texas Legislature has made only five categories of voters eligible to vote by mail: those who will be physically absent from the county, are incarcerated, have a defined disability, are 65 or older, or “crime victims whose addresses are confidential by law.” 

According to U.S. Census Bureau data and other records, only about 10 to 13 percent of Harris County voters qualify as elderly or disabled.

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa condemned the ruling, saying, “Once again, the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court steps into this election against the interests of voters and a functioning democracy.”

State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) applauded the decision as appropriate.

“The Supreme Court ruling recognizes the obvious,” Bettencourt told The Texan. “It means that we maintain election integrity in an election year that disruption of this magnitude would have yielded bad results for everyone.” 

Prior to today’s SCOTX ruling, the court had issued a stay to prevent Hollins from sending the applications, which are pre-printed with voters’ names and addresses.

Although Hays told the SCOTX last week that the applications were not yet completely printed, on Friday a reporter for the Houston Chronicle shared a photo purportedly of the completed materials on a pallet and waiting to be mailed. 

Republican Party of Texas Chairman Allen West last month expressed concern over the security of the printed materials and called on the attorney general’s office to confiscate the applications.

Today, the court also denied a challenge by a GOP coalition to halt Gov. Abbott’s unilateral extension of early voting, stating that it was too late in the game for the case to be heard.

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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.