Voters in Cameron County afraid of COVID-19 who wish to vote by mail during the upcoming July runoff elections may not be able to do so depending on the outcome of a legal battle initiated by Attorney General Ken Paxton on Wednesday.
Paxton’s office announced in a press release it had filed a petition for a writ of mandamus with the Texas Supreme Court requesting it compel the early voting clerks for Dallas, Cameron, El Paso, Harris, and Travis Counties follow Texas law on mail-in ballots.
Cameron County Elections Administrator Remi Garza confirmed on Thursday the county had activated its civil litigation division to represent him in the lawsuit. “They’re preparing our response so that it will be timely, on Monday, as is required,” he said. All of the counties targeted by Paxton are Democratic-leaning. The announcement came just days before a hearing was scheduled in a lawsuit filed by the Texas Democratic Party seeking to ensure that all eligible Texans who feel their heath and safety is at risk due to the virus are able to utilize the disability category to vote.
Texas law allows voters who are 65 years or older, sick or disabled, away from the county on election day and during early voting, or are confined in jail but are eligible to vote to receive a ballot in the mail after completing an application.
Paxton’s office sent a letter to Texas county judges and election officials on May 1 guiding counties not to allow residents to use the disability category unless the voter has tested positive. In Cameron County, however, testing is not currently available to residents who don’t display symptoms.
In the letter, Paxton wrote that “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.”
Elections administrators in both Cameron and Hidalgo counties said the March lawsuit doesn’t impact current policy, which is to follow the Texas Election Code. Election officials do not have the legal authority to question any voter who submits an application and checks the disability category. As long as the application isn’t defective, it would not be rejected, they explained.
Paxton’s move to petition the Supreme Court directly targeted officials for “encouraging” voters to submit “unlawful” mail-in ballot applications. In its Wednesday press release, he urged voters to follow state law.
“Each misapplication of Texas election law damages the integrity of our elections and increases the risk of voter fraud. In-person voting is the surest way to prevent voter fraud and guarantee that every voter is who they claim to be and has a fair opportunity to cast their vote,’ Paxton wrote.
“‘Disability’, as that term is used in the Texas Election Code’s provisions allowing voting by mail, means a ‘sickness or physical condition’ that prevents a voter from voting in person on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.’”
Garza refuted the notion that the county is not adhering to election law and stated officials will continue to adhere to the Texas election code when processing vote by mail applications. “As people submit their applications, they’re being reviewed, and if there are any deficiencies, we’re asking them to be corrected so we can send them the ballot as needed,” he said.
“My position has always been that we serve the voters first and that we should always err on the side of the voters’ needs.”