Following an election season fraught with controversy over policy and procedure, a group of Texas state senators have authored legislation prohibiting election officials from sending unsolicited absentee ballot applications to all registered voters regardless of eligibility.
Senators Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury), Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), Bob Hall (R-Rockwall), and Kel Seliger (R-Lubbock) announced Wednesday the filing of Senate Bill (SB) 208 to codify a recent Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX) ruling and interpretation of law from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton regarding the unsolicited applications.
Earlier this month State Representative Valoree Swanson (R-Houston) also filed a companion bill, House Bill 25, in the lower chamber.
The proposed change to state code would address legal challenges initiated when Harris County interim Clerk Chris Hollins sought to send unsolicited mail ballot applications to every one of the county’s 2.4 million registered voters.
After Hollins ignored a warning from the Secretary of State’s Director of Elections Keith Ingram, Paxton filed a lawsuit to stop the program, and won a favorable ruling from SCOTX in October just before the applications, already printed, were to be mailed out.
Democrats had pushed to expand mail balloting in Texas this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and argued that many residents would be afraid to vote in-person.
Bettencourt noted that despite conditions, voter participation in the state exceeded expectations.
“We must recognize the obvious that we didn’t need to mail more than 2 million absentee ballot applications to all registered voters in Harris County to have a record 11.2 million Texas voters cast their ballots,” said Bettencourt.
“This bill SB 208 is about making sure all votes in Texas are counted legally,” he continued.
In the lawsuit against Hollins, the state argued that sending applications to voters who were not eligible would lead to confusion. Under the law, only those who will be physically absent from the county, are incarcerated but still eligible to vote, have a defined disability, are 65 years of age or older, or “crime victims whose addresses are confidential by law,” may use absentee ballots.
“Sending two million-plus absentee ballot applications to all registered voters would have certainly caused more voter confusion as 95 percent of these recipients would not have qualified for an absentee ballot under Texas Election Law in the first place,” said Bettencourt.
Republicans opposing the expansion of absentee or mail balloting say the practice would expand opportunities for illegal ballot harvesting and other forms of fraud.
SCOTX ultimately ruled that Hollins’ unprecedented plan would undercut the Secretary of State’s duty to “maintain uniformity” in Texas’ elections, and stated that “the authority vested in Texas counties — and county officials — is limited.” The state’s highest court did not, however, rule on whether expanded mail balloting would be good policy.
Six other states allow for universal voting by mail, and Texas Democrats are hoping to bring the practice to the Lone Star State. Texas Rep. Lina Ortega (D-El Paso) has filed legislation that would make every registered voter eligible for a mail ballot, but with the Republicans retaining control of both the state house and senate, Ortega’s bill is less likely to succeed since Republicans preserved their House majority.
Bettencourt says this bill is only one of several related to election code he plans to file for the upcoming legislative session which begins on January 12, 2021.
Other controversial election practices such as the governor’s extension of the early voting period; the number of mail ballot drop-off locations a county may use; and the use of so-called “drive-through” voting are likely to be debated in next year.
Harris County, the most populous in the state, completed the election canvass earlier this week, but according to discussion at commissioners court Tuesday, Hollins has not himself signed off on the final documents to be sent to the secretary of state. Since he was only a temporary replacement for Diane Trautman who abruptly resigned earlier this year, Hollins no longer has an official role in Harris County.
Earlier this year, Democrats on the commissioners court voted to move voter registration and elections administration out of the hands of the elected district clerk and county clerk, and to an appointed elections administrator. Commissioners approved Isabel Longoria, a former staffer for state Senator Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston,) who will be paid $190,000 per year.
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