A state judge in Texas issued a ruling Thursday blocking Gov. Greg Abbott’s attempt to limit counties to one collection box each for early-voting ballots to be returned, saying it flies in the face of coronavirus safety precautions.
The decision by Judge Tim Sulak, who sits in Austin, is the latest in a legal tussle that’s taken on national significance.
“The limitation to a single drop-off location for mail ballots would likely needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections, and needlessly and unreasonably substantially burden potential voters’ constitutionally protected rights to vote, as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things,” the judge wrote in a letter announcing the ruling.
Mr. Abbott had expanded early-voting options. He increased the amount of time when in-person early-voting could take place, and the days when absentee ballots, mailed out to voters, could be dropped off. But he issued an addendum to that order saying counties could only have one collection box for those absentee ballots ahead of Election Day.
Ballots can still be put in the mail without any restrictions.
Opponents said limiting drop-offs to a single location per county was unfair, particularly in sprawling or heavily populated counties. Harris County, home of Houston, has nearly 5 million residents.
Mr. Abbott defended his limit as an important check on mischief, saying too many boxes created more opportunities for fraud or other mishaps.
The state has also successfully battled against efforts by Democrats and left-leaning voting-rights activists to try to expand the universe of voters who receive ballots by mail.
Texas is one of a shrinking number of states that still requires an excuse to vote absentee. Those voters must be at least 65 years of age or have a disability.
Democrats had argued that fear of contracting COVID-19 was such a disability, so everyone should be allowed to vote by mail. Both the state Supreme Court and a federal appeals court rejected attempts to force that policy.
With polling suggesting Democrats have an outside shot at winning Texas at the presidential level for the first time in decades, anti-Trump groups have accused Mr. Abbott of trying to depress voting.
The ballot drop-off situation is also being tested in federal courts.
A district judge sided with voting-rights groups, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled that, siding with the governor and ruling that, combined with his expansion of times for early-voting, his overall thrust was to give more options.
The three-judge panel said that taken as a whole, Mr. Abbott’s changes amounted to an expansion.
Under Texas law, early voting wasn’t supposed to start until Oct. 19, but he added six days, allowing it to start Oct. 13.
And usually ballots could only be dropped off by hand on Election Day. Allowing the drop-off boxes now is still better than that, the court ruled.
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