Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Thursday, April 16, 2020 by Ashley Lopez

Travis County judge says he will open up mail-in voting during Covid-19 pandemic

A Travis County district court judge said Wednesday he will clarify that voters fearful of contracting Covid-19 will be allowed to use mail-in ballots during elections in July and November.

The Texas Democratic Party sued state and local election officials last month in an effort to get a district court to clarify state law.

​Texas has one of the strictest vote-by-mail programs in the country. Only people over 65, people who are in jail and not convicted, people who will be out of the county, and people who are sick or disabled can get a mail-in ballot.

Attorneys representing Texas Democrats argued during a remote hearing in Austin that because people could be exposed to the coronavirus while voting in person, they should be allowed to apply for a mail-in ballot under the “disability” category.

Chad Dunn, who represents the party, said without clarity people will forgo voting in an effort to avoid getting sick.

“It cannot be the situation – and is not the fact – that the Texas Legislature provided a situation that in a pandemic circumstance the right to vote is in conflict with public health,” he said in court.

Judge Tim Sulak said he was “inclined” to side with plaintiffs in the case because voters were being put in a situation where they had two bad options.

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said the judge’s decision to open up the state’s ballot by mail program “is a victory” for all voters in Texas.

“Our state is better off when more Texans participate in our democracy. Voting by mail is safe, secure and accessible,” he said in a statement. “It allows more voters to participate in our democracy and it’s a commonsense way to run an election, especially during a public health crisis.”

Lawyers defending state officials argued, however, that there are too many unknowns at this point. Anna Mackin, who represented the state, said expanding ballot-by-mail may not even be necessary during upcoming elections.

Attorneys representing state officials said they planned to appeal Sulak’s order, once it’s submitted.

While attorneys argued in court, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton weighed in on the matter, saying fear of contracting Covid-19 does not qualify someone for a mail-in ballot.

“Mail ballots based on disability are specifically reserved for those who are physically ill and cannot vote in person as a result,” he said in a statement. “Fear of contracting Covid-19 does not amount to a sickness or physical condition as required by the legislature.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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