By MEREDITH DELISO, ABC News
(AUSTIN, Texas) — A federal judge blocked an order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that restricted the number of locations where voters can hand-deliver mail-in ballots in each county a month before the election.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pitman ordered on Friday that the state is barred from implementing or enforcing the Republican governor’s order, arguing that it would put vulnerable voters at risk. Those eligible to vote early by mail in Texas must be 65 years or older, be sick or disabled, be out of their county on voting days or be confined in jail but otherwise eligible.
“By limiting ballot return centers to one per county, older and disabled voters living in Texas’s largest and most populous counties must travel further distances to more crowded ballot return centers where they would be at an increased risk of being infected by the coronavirus in order to exercise their right to vote and have it counted,” Pitman wrote.
The judge also wrote that voters run the risk of disenfranchisement “if the USPS is unable to deliver their ballots in time.”
Pitman issued the injunction against Abbott’s Oct. 1 proclamation, which limited the number of locations where eligible voters could deliver their mail-in ballots to a single early voting clerk’s office, regardless of county size, effective the following day. For Harris County — which is larger than the state of Rhode Island — that meant 11 such locations had to close. In Travis County, three closed, and so on for the state’s 254 counties.
Abbott said the move would bolster security and “help stop attempts at illegal voting,” while Democrats, election officials and voting rights advocates charged it would result in confusion and voter suppression, with voting already underway in Texas. The state also argued that concerns about USPS delays were based on “subjective fear.”
On Saturday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed an emergency appeal in an attempt to halt the judge’s order.
“The district court’s order undermines our election security, disrupts the democratic process, and will only lead to voter confusion. It cannot stand,” Paxton said in a statement. “Mail-in ballots are particularly vulnerable to fraud. Protections that ensure their security must be upheld and my office will continue to fight for safe, free and fair elections.”
The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a civil rights group that sued the state, called the governor’s proclamation a “blatant act of discrimination.”
“Governor Greg Abbott is trying to prey on the fear of the pandemic which will keep Hispanics from wanting to risk their lives by going to the polls in person,” LULAC president Domingo Garcia said in a statement issued Friday. “Instead, they and many other qualified, legal voters prefer to safeguard their well-being by dropping off their ballot at authorized locations near them and today’s injunction guarantees they will be able to do so.”
Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa championed the judge’s order as “common sense,” saying in a statement that it “stopped the governor from making up election rules after the election started.”
Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins called the injunction a “victory for voting rights.”
“Seniors and voters with disabilities across Harris County need these drop-off locations to deliver their mail ballots safely and conveniently during the global pandemic,” Hollins said in a statement. “We shouldn’t be playing politics with voters’ lives.”
Abbott’s Oct. 1 proclamation modified a July 27 order — which waived a state law limiting hand-delivery of mail-in ballots on Election Day — and added six more days of early in-person voting.
President Donald Trump has frequently attacked voting by mail, repeating unsubstantiated claims that there will be widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election due to mail-in ballots, which are expected to increase due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation said it has not seen a “coordinated national voter fraud effort during a major election.”
Hand-delivering mail-in ballots has also been an issue in the battleground state of Ohio, where a move to add ballot drop boxes is tied up in court.
ABC News’ Matt Foster contributed to this report.
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