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Democratic leaders in Congress urge Gov. Greg Abbott to lift limit on mail-in ballot drop-off locations

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Texas counties are now limited to one absentee ballot drop-off location. Credit: Amna Ijaz/The Texas Tribune

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The Democratic chairs of three high-profile Congressional committees Tuesday urged Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to rescind his order limiting counties to one drop-off location for absentee ballots, saying it “appears to be a last-ditch effort to suppress Texans’ ability to vote.”

In a letter to the Texas governor, U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-SC, and U.S. Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-CA, and Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, said they are investigating Abbott’s order because it “may interfere with the administration of free, fair, and safe federal elections in Texas during the coronavirus pandemic.” The chairs also asked Abbott to provide documents regarding his decision.

Clyburn leads the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, Lofgren chairs the Committee on House Administration, and Maloney presides over the Committee on Oversight and Reform.

A spokesperson for Abbott did not immediately respond to questions about the letter Tuesday, but said in response to lawsuits filed challenging the order that Abbott has expanded access to voting in the pandemic. Abbott increased the in-person early voting window by six days and allowed for mail-in ballot hand deliveries before Election Day, though now at only one location per county.

Last week, Abbott issued a last-minute order directing Texas counties to provide no more than one hand-delivery location for voters casting absentee ballots in the November election, one day after the state's solicitor general had signed off on the legality of multiple locations.

With an unprecedented number of Texas voters requesting mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic and concerns about the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service, some large, Democratic counties had set up numerous county offices to accept voters’ mail-in ballots by hand.

Harris County, the state’s most populous and home to Houston, had designated a dozen ballot drop-off locations in county clerk offices across the county’s roughly 1,700 square miles and had already begun collecting them. In Travis County, which includes Austin, officials had designated four locations where voters could deliver their ballots. To drop off a mail-in ballot, voters must present an approved form of identification and they may not turn in any one else’s ballot.

Democrats immediately denounced Abbott’s limiting order, labeling it voter suppression in a state that has repeatedly been knocked in federal court for intentionally discriminating against voters of color. Voting rights advocates and civic groups quickly sued Abbott in federal and state court, arguing in part that the order was based on unsubstantiated claims of potential voter fraud and puts an unconstitutional and unequal burden on the right to vote.

In his proclamation, Abbott said his order was meant to “strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state,” but a spokesperson did not answer questions on how allowing multiple locations for ballot delivery may lead to fraud. The congressional chairs noted this, saying that vote-by-mail fraud “is essentially non-existent and Texas already has stringent controls for the return of early vote-by-mail ballots.”

The Congressional letter also argued that limiting the ballot delivery locations went against federal health guidelines in the pandemic and would force “thousands of voters to congregate at a single county clerk’s office to deliver mail-in ballots.”

Texas remains one of only a handful of states that doesn’t allow for universal mail-in voting during the pandemic, and Republican officials have pushed back on other efforts to expand access to voting. To qualify to vote by mail, voters must be 65 or older, confined in jail but otherwise eligible, out of the county for the election period or cite a disability. The Texas Supreme Court has said that lack of immunity to the coronavirus does not itself constitute a disability, but voters may consider that alongside their medical histories to decide whether they qualify.

Voting expansions Texas did apply in the pandemic were to extend the in-person early voting period by six days and allow for mail-in ballots to be delivered by hand, instead of by mail, at county election offices before Election Day. Previously, hand-delivered absentee ballots could only be delivered by hand on Election Day, and election administrators said it was a method not commonly used.