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Court order that opens up mail-in voting in Texas stays in effect for now, appeals court rules

Friday, May 15, 2020 by Ashley Lopez, KUT

Voters who don’t want to risk exposure to the coronavirus may use mail-in ballots during upcoming elections as a legal battle moves through the courts, a Texas appeals court ruled Thursday.

The 14th Court of Appeals ruled a trial court order from April will stay in place until the appeal has concluded, Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, said.

“What that means is that anyone who does not have an immunity to Covid-19 – which is the general population right now – is eligible to vote and is eligible to use a mail-in ballot for the upcoming election,” she said.

In March, the Texas Democratic Party and civil rights groups filed a lawsuit in Travis County against state election officials to compel a judge to clarify who can seek mail-in ballots in Texas.

Texas has one of the strictest vote-by-mail programs in the country. The program is open only to people age 65 or older, people who will be out of the county, people who are in jail and not convicted, and people who are sick or disabled.

Voting groups have argued the state election code does have wiggle room for people who could be harmed by voting in person.

According to the code, “disability” means “a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.”

While the district court sided with voting groups, Republican state leaders have pushed back on expanding the vote-by-mail program.

This week, Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a petition directly with the Texas Supreme Court, “requesting that the court compel the early-voting clerks for Dallas, Cameron, El Paso, Harris and Travis Counties to follow Texas law on mail-in ballots.”

“Preparations for the upcoming elections have already begun, and Respondents are urging voters to apply to vote by mail even when those voters do not meet the Legislature’s test for eligibility to do so,” his petition said.

Stevens said Paxton’s petition was improper.

“They are trying to make an end-run around the court of appeals … and kind of hop over to the Texas Supreme Court,” she said. “We will, of course, object to that, but it does not affect the court’s order for now.”

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

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