Elections 2020Local NewsTexas Supreme Court Temporarily Halts Harris County Mail-In Ballot Plans

The Texas Supreme Court effectively halted Harris County plans to send mail-in ballot applications to each of the county’s 2.37 million voters.
September 3, 2020
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The Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX) issued a stay on Wednesday that halts a Harris County plan to send mail-in ballot applications to each of the county’s 2.37 million voters.

The court’s action came in response to a lawsuit and an emergency request for temporary relief in a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton against interim Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, one of two lawsuits filed in the matter. The second was filed by Dr. Steven Hotze, the Harris County Republican Party, and judicial candidate Sharon Hemphill.

The stay instructs Hollins to refrain from sending applications to vote by mail to registered voters under the age of 65 who have not requested them “until five days after a temporary injunction ruling” in the attorney general’s lawsuit.

Earlier this year, both the SCOTX and Attorney General Ken Paxton had clarified that state statute only permits those over age 65 or those actually ill or incapacitated to use mail ballots. Harris County and then-Clerk Diane Trautman abandoned initial plans to send actual ballots, but Hollins later sought approval from the county commissioners court to send applications instead.

After commissioners approved Hollins’ plans in a 3-2 partisan vote, the Secretary of State’s Director of Elections Keith Ingram warned that the plan would be contrary to the state’s guidance and laws governing ballots by mail and issued a deadline for halt to the program.

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Initially, Hollins stated he would continue with the mail plan, but after Paxton filed suit in Harris County the clerk said he would wait for a court decision. The SCOTX stay legally prevents him from proceeding.

In response to the ruling, newly elected Harris County Republican Party Chairman Keith Nielsen applauded the decision and noted the history of problems in elections administration in the county, including a bungled March primary election and lengthy reporting delays last November and again in March. 

“The Harris County Republican Party joined in litigation to stop this unprecedented action by an office that has yet to demonstrate a core competence in conducting a county election,” said Nielsen. 

Nielsen also said there was at least one Democrat primary election under review by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, and added that “Democrat candidates suffer disproportionately in a corrupted election process.”

Some Democrats in Texas and across the nation have been advocating for universal mail balloting, but Republicans and supporters of voter photo identification requirements have opposed the expansion of vote by mail.

The Texas legislature passed a Voter ID law in 2011, and the measure typically has bipartisan support, but mail ballots circumvent the requirement to produce identification before voting.

Opponents of mail balloting also express concern over other difficulties in preventing election fraud and point to examples of alleged ballot harvesting, lost mail ballots, and ballot processing issues.

Underscoring concerns, this week Harris County Precinct Four Constable Mark Herman announced the arrest of a suspect in possession of hundreds of pieces of mail that belonged to multiple victims.

Last month, Harris County commissioners approved Hollins’ request for an additional $17 million to implement his 23-point S.A.F.E. Plan for the 2020 election cycle. The additional funds bring county election costs for 2020 to more than $27 million compared to 2016 election costs of $4.1 million.

 

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Holly Hansen

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.