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Analysis: Greg Abbott’s latest retreat comes at the expense of Texas voters

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A drop-off location in Austin on Oct. 1, 2020, where voters can hand deliver their ballots by Election Day. Credit: Amna Ijaz/The Texas Tribune

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With Texans already casting absentee ballots, Gov. Greg Abbott is making it more difficult to vote by closing ballot drop-off locations.

His adversaries are calling that vote suppression — and they’re right.

Under Abbott’s new order, counties like Harris, with 12 drop-off locations, and Travis, with four, can each have just one location.

Given the opportunity to make it easier to vote in Texas’ 2020 general election, to leave the election process alone, or to make it harder to vote, the governor chose the third option.

“This haphazard decision by Gov. Abbott, to change the rules of the game at the last moment, is confusing to voters, and will serve to depress Texas votes, plain and simple,” Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said Friday at a news conference. “This decision should not stand.”

“To force hundreds of thousands of seniors and voters with disabilities here in Harris County, and millions of voters across the state of Texas to use a single drop-off facility in these massive counties is not only prejudicial, but it’s dangerous,” he said.

This isn’t Abbott’s first pandemic policy flip. The Texas governor, who wanted to close hair salons and barber shops until Shelley Luther got up in his grill, is now quailing before Allen West and the conservatives West has assembled to protest not only the governor’s business closings, but also his election concessions to the pandemic.

Abbott didn’t want to open voting by mail to everyone, though under his own interpretation of his emergency powers during the pandemic, he could have. Instead, he accommodated voters by extending early voting by six days and allowing absentee voters to deliver their ballots by hand — in case they were worried about the U.S. Postal Service — any time up to Election Day. Big counties opened multiple locations to make that easier.

West and his posse, a group that includes Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, Houston activist Steve Hotze, a number of state legislators and others, didn’t cotton to that. They sued. They announced they’d be demonstrating next weekend in front of the Governor’s Mansion.

And Abbott responded with the same move he made when faced with Luther’s civil disobedience earlier this year. He threw his political juggernaut into reverse.

First, the governor issued the order — overriding an earlier order — that restricts voters to only one place in their county to deliver absentee ballots in person.

Abbott and West and others cried election fraud, a phrase that in their lexicon seems to mean that the other side’s voters are turning out. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, tweeted that having only one location would make it easier for poll watchers to keep an eye on things. That’s putting the comfort and care of the watchers ahead of the comfort and care of the voters.

“We must take extra care to strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state,” Abbott said Thursday in the news release revealing his latest order. “These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting.” He didn’t cite any such attempts.

That is pure politics. A business person, in contrast, would have customers in mind, wanting to make it easy for people to get to the store, to buy the product or service, to go away happy. What would it look like if someone like that was in charge of voting?

It’s not a security issue. Bankers have security issues, but they’ll let you deposit checks with a smart phone and get cash from machines in outdoor parking lots. If people like that ran elections — or wrote election law — voting would be safe, secure and easy.

The incentives for this gang aren’t lined up that way. They’re loathe to change the systems that put them in office, to encourage voters who didn’t vote for them — or to take a risk on those who have never voted.

The message coming from Republicans this year, starting with the Republican in the White House, is that the results of the upcoming election might be suspect. They offer no evidence of systemic problems to back that up, but their steady repetition — one of the fundamentals of political messaging — has made their claims ubiquitous.

It’s probably not what they’d be saying if they thought they were winning. They’d be telling us they trust the voters, the process and the results — as they’ve done in elections past.

They don’t trust voters to support them. Maybe they’d win anyway, but these are smart people, and they can see how things are going right now.

The governor is trying to change the voting rules during an election that looks much tougher for Republicans. Remember that one kid who wanted to change the rules of whatever game you were playing, whenever you were winning? Abbott isn’t exactly like that kid you remember, the one who threatened to take the basketball home if the other players wouldn’t bend.

This isn’t his basketball.

It’s ours.