The Harris County Clerk’s Office announced this week it would be mailing every registered voter – 2.37 million people – an application to vote by mail.
“To learn more about voting by mail in Harris County, please visit http://HarrisVotes.com/votebymail,” it tweeted.
On a 3-2 party-line vote, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and two Democratic commissioners voted to spend an additional $17.1 million on mail-in voting. All but $1 million will come from federal CARES Act money intended to help people suffering from the state and local shutdowns. The funds are in addition to the $12 million they approved earlier this year to expand mail-in voting.
Analysts note the cost will be seven times more than administering the 2016 election. Critics argue the impact of election fraud from ballot harvesting could be enormous.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Secretary of State Ruth Hughs to weigh in.
“Just because you can spend ‘free federal money’ doesn’t mean that you should, because it is all taxpayer monies,” Bettencourt said. “Regardless of COVID-19 status, this type of massive election spending is not sustainable without raising the property tax rate for the next set of elections in 2022 and beyond.”
An even greater concern is if this expansion of mail-in voting is legal under Texas election laws, he added.
On Thursday, the Secretary of State sent a letter to the Harris County clerk, arguing that if he didn’t halt the mail-in voting plan by Monday, Aug. 31, the county would face legal action from the Attorney General’s office.
Keith Ingram, director of elections for the Texas secretary of state, said in his letter that the county’s plan “would be contrary to our office’s guidance on this issue and an abuse of voters’ rights under Texas Election Code Section 31.005.
“As you know, the Texas Election Code requires that voters have a qualifying reason to vote by mail,” he said. “They must be 65 years or older, disabled, out of the county while voting is occurring, or confined in jail but otherwise eligible to vote. It is not possible that every voter in Harris County will satisfy one or more of these requirements.”
The Harris County Clerk’s Office said it has responded to the letter, “offering to discuss the matter with them.”
Ingram ordered the clerk’s office to “immediately halt any plan to send an application for ballot by mail to all registered voters and announce its retraction. If you have not done so by noon on Monday, August 31, 2020, I will request that the Texas Attorney General take appropriate steps under Texas Election Code 31.005.”
The massive mail-in ballot initiative is only part of the clerk’s 24-initiative plan.
Some of the initiatives were piloted in the July primary run-off, the clerk’s office said. They include extended early balloting hours on multiple nights up to 10 p.m. and one 24-hour voting session, drive-through options, and new equipment to process “an expected record number” of mailed ballots.
The additional funding will allow Harris County to operate 120 early voting sites instead of 40, and 808 Election Day locations instead of 750. The clerk’s office estimates 1.7 million Harris County voters may vote this year – a county record – and an increase of more than 360,000 votes cast from the 2016 election.