Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit Monday to block Harris County Interim Clerk Chris Hollins from implementing a plan to send mail-in ballot applications to every registered voter in Harris County.
The attorney general’s office filed the suit after Hollins failed to meet a Monday deadline for halting the program.
Last Tuesday the Harris County Commissioners Court approved along partisan lines an additional $17.171 million for Hollins to implement his S.A.F.E. Plan for the 2020 Elections, which includes mailing applications to each one of the county’s 2.37 million registered voters.
Earlier this year, Paxton had issued an advisory to election officials around the state clarifying that state law only allows mail-in ballots for those over age 65, or actually ill or incapacitated; an interpretation affirmed by the Supreme Court of Texas.
Additionally, Paxton warned that “third parties,” such as elections officials advising voters to apply for a ballot by mail illegally, could be prosecuted for election fraud.
Last week the Secretary of State’s Director of Elections Keith Ingram warned Hollins that his plan would be contrary to the state’s guidance and laws governing ballots by mail, and could constitute an “abuse of voters’ rights under Texas Election Code.” Ingram wrote that he would seek intervention from the attorney general unless Hollins halted the program by noon on August 31, 2020.
Hollins however, told media last Friday that he did not intend to comply with the directive from the Secretary of State.
“Election officials have a duty to reject mail-in ballot applications from voters who are not eligible to vote by mail. Unfortunately, instead of protecting the integrity of our democratic process, the Harris County Clerk decided to knowingly violate election laws by preparing to send over two million ballot applications to many Texans who do not qualify and have not requested to vote by mail,” said Paxton.
“This blatant violation of law undermines our election security and integrity and cannot stand. I will continue to fight for safe, fair, and legal elections across the state.”
Monday’s lawsuit states that while the law empowers Hollins to mail applications to voters who’ve requested one, that “power to send unsolicited applications to millions of voters, the vast majority of whom do not qualify to vote by mail, cannot fairly be implied” by election law.
Further, the attorney general’s filing warns that sending 2.37 million unsolicited applications “will become ripe material for voter fraud,” and that flooding the system with unrequested applications could “prevent the timely processing of those who are eligible to vote by mail.”
The suit notes that Harris County has already mailed applications to every voter over the age of 65, who are eligible to vote by mail.
Although Hollins has protested that he will include literature attempting to explain who is eligible, the attorney general says it is “inevitable that voters who receive applications from a public official with the imprimatur of state authority will wrongly assume they are eligible.”
In attempting to process millions of applications, the lawsuit also warns that ineligible voters may be disenfranchised if they are not notified of ineligibility in time to participate as an in-person voter.
Paxton is asking the court to issue an injunction against Hollins to prevent him from sending the unsolicited applications.
Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), who had requested state scrutiny of the Harris County plan, said he would have preferred for Hollins to have simply followed the Secretary of State’s guidance letter.
“Instead of complying with the deadline or meeting with the Secretary of State beforehand, Hollins is now not following the Texas election laws. He’s spending 700 percent more budget dollars in 2020 v. 2016, and opening the door for vote harvesters and potential fraud.”
“We just had a July 14th runoff election in the county where 238,000 voted in the middle of a pandemic and the combination of absentee ballots and in-person voting did the job,” added Bettencourt.
Bettencourt said that Hollins had participated in a PBS “Town Square” event entitled “All About Voting: From Registration to Suppression,” on Monday, but “did not seem to have time to talk to the Secretary of State.”
Earlier this year, the Secretary of State forwarded a complaint alleging ballot harvesting in Harris County to the attorney general for a full investigation.
Hollins, former vice chairman of finance for the Texas Democrat Party, was appointed by commissioners in a 3-2 partisan vote to serve as the interim clerk after the previously elected Clerk Diane Trautman (D) suddenly resigned in May.
Voters will have the opportunity to choose a new clerk in the November 2020 general elections, with Democrat Teneshia Hudspeth facing off against Republican Stan Stanart, who served as clerk from 2011 to 2018.
The Harris County Republican Party, along with Steve Hotze and candidate for the 80th District Court Sharon Hemphill, has also petitioned the Texas Supreme Court to block Hollins’ plan to send the mail-in ballot applications.
Correction: An earlier version of the article misstated the number of registered voters in Harris County.
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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.