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U.S. Supreme Court won’t fast-track Texas Democrats’ bid to expand mail-in voting during pandemic

The United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. (Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune)
The United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. (Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune)

The U.S. Supreme Court won’t fast-track a bid by Texas Democrats to decide whether all Texas voters can vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, leaving in place the state’s current regulations for the upcoming July 14 primary runoff election.

But the case, which now returns to a lower court, could be back before the Supreme Court before the higher-stakes, larger-turnout general election in November. Current law allows voters to mail in their ballots only if they are 65 or older, confined in jail, will be out of the county during the election period or cite a disability or illness. But Texas Democrats have argued that voters who are susceptible to contracting the new coronavirus should be able to vote by mail as the pandemic continues to ravage the state.

Thursday's one-line, unsigned order denying the Democrats' effort to get a quick ruling comes a week after another minor loss for them at the high court. On June 26, the Supreme Court declined to reinstate a federal judge's order that would immediately expand vote-by-mail to all Texas voters during the coronavirus pandemic.

A spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, which brought the case, said the party will “continue to fight tooth and nail for everybody’s right to vote.”

“All Texans should have clarity on how they can cast their ballot in the November elections,” said spokesperson Abhi Rahman.

Since the new coronavirus began to disrupt daily life in Texas and across the country, there has been a flurry of litigation in both state and federal courts over who can vote by mail and under what circumstances. Already, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that a lack of immunity to the virus does not qualify a voter to apply for a mail-in-ballot.

That’s left Texas Democrats to pin their hopes on the ongoing federal lawsuit. A federal judge ruled in May that all voters qualified for mail-in ballots during the pandemic, but the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals quickly put that ruling on hold. The case now heads back to that court, which is known for its politically conservative bent.

A number of other states will allow all voters to mail in their ballots during the pandemic.

Early voting is already underway — in person — for the July 14 election, which includes a contest between state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, and veteran M.J. Hegar for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.