Earlier this week, the Harris County Commissioners Court voted along partisan lines to approve a request from interim clerk Chris Hollins for an additional $17.171 million for the elections division to implement a wide array of new procedures for the 2020 elections.
Hollins’ 23-point S.A.F.E. Plan for the county’s operations included sending applications for mail ballots to the more than 2.7 million registered voters in the county.
The Supreme Court of Texas has ruled that only elderly, ill, or incapacitated individuals are eligible for mail ballots and Attorney General Ken Paxton has warned that officials encouraging illegal use of mail ballots may be subject to prosecution, but Hollins told commissioners he would be including an informational insert with the applications to instruct voters as to who was eligible.
In the letter to Hollins, Secretary of State Director of Elections Keith Ingram states that sending applications for vote by mail to all voters would be contrary to guidance on the issue and “an abuse of voters’ rights under Texas Election Code.”
Ingram warns that Hollins’ plan may cause voters to provide false information, sow confusion, and impede the ability of persons who actually need to vote by mail from doing so by clogging up the vote by mail infrastructure.
The county is instructed to halt the plan by noon on Monday, August 31, 2020, or the office of the Secretary of State will request the Texas attorney general to take appropriate action under the law.
Ingram’s letter also instructs the county to “announce” retraction of the plan.
If the county fails to meet the deadline, Paxton could seek a temporary restraining order or mandamus that would legally order a halt to the plan.
State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), who represents portions of Harris County, had earlier this week requested an opinion from state officials on the Harris County plan.
“As I said this week, this overreach by Clerk Hollins and the 3-2 majority on Commissioner’s Court massively raising their election budget, actually opens the door to vote harvesters and potential fraud in my opinion,” said Bettencourt.
“I simply requested a review of this plan as I was concerned that this mailing was outside the Texas Election Code. This letter from the Secretary of State confirms that.”
Earlier this year, the Secretary of State’s office referred allegations of illegal ballot harvesting in Harris County to the attorney general for a full investigation. That investigation is still pending.
Hollins’ plan will increase the cost of the 2020 elections for the county to more than $27 million for this year. By comparison, the 2016 presidential election cost $4.1 million.
Harris County’s plan will also hire up to 12,000 new workers, set up drive-thru voting sites, launch new voter outreach efforts, and implement COVID-19 precautions for in-person voting.
Correction: An earlier version of the article misstated the author of the letter to the Harris County Clerk. The author was Secretary of State Director of Elections Keith Ingram.
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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.