Legal battles continue between AG’s office and voter rights groups

Fear of contracting COVID-19 doesn’t technically qualify Texas residents to receive a vote by mail ballot under state election code, but local officials say they don’t have the authority to reject applications that have been filled out properly if someone checks the disability category.

A legal battle between Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office and a coalition of rights groups fighting for residents’ right to vote by mail using the disability category during the pandemic is ongoing. But, elections administrators in both Cameron and Hidalgo counties have confirmed that department staff would continue to adhere to state election law as they process requests.

AG Paxton’s office on Friday issued a letter to Texas county judges and election officials, guiding counties not to allow residents to claim disability based on fears of contracting COVID-19 on vote by mail applications.

“ A voter ill with COVID-19 and who meets those requirements may apply for a ballot by mail. Fear of contracting COVID-19, however, is a normal emotional reaction to the current pandemic and does not amount to an actual disability that qualifies a voter to receive a ballot by mail,” Paxton’s office wrote in a statement.

In Texas, in order to vote by mail, a voter must be 65 years or older on Election Day, sick or disabled, away from their county on Election Day and during early voting, or confined in jail but eligible to vote.

Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramón said the pending litigation doesn’t impact daily operations in the sense that offices don’t have the authority to question a resident regarding their disability or COVID status. The point was recently clarified during an advisory committee meeting with the Secretary of State’s office, she explained.

“ If you check the disability box, then federal law does not allow me to question you,” she said. “It is not up to us to have a subjective opinion. The fact is that if a voter puts disabled, then that is a good application.”

Ramón’s response was echoed by Remi Garza, elections administrator for Cameron County, who confirmed they will accept applications as they’re submitted. “We’re not in a position, not are we allowed to make a determination as to whether that declaration is valid or not,” he said.

“ If somebody wanted to challenge that, like a district attorney or the attorney general, then they would be able to look at that application to see whether or not there were false or misleading statements made on it.”

Garza added that notes written describing the disability after checking the box aren’t necessary. If anyone were to indicate they were checking the box due to coronavirus, it would not make a difference on the application’s outcome.

Both administrators specified that the only way an application would be rejected is if a person mailed it in indicating they’re requesting a ballot but fail to check one of the available categories.