Within days of early voting beginning Tuesday, judges sparred over Gov. Greg Abbott’s ballot proclamation, the latest in a string of singular orders the governor has issued impacting state election law.
On Sunday, a federal appeals court judge stayed the order, prompting what many believe will ignite another last minute legal battle up to and surrounding Election Day on Nov. 3.
On Oct. 1, Abbott issued a proclamation dictating ballot security protocols for the in-person delivery of marked mail ballots for the election. The proclamation was issued after a lawsuit was filed over alleged ballot harvesting occurring in Harris County and after 25 Republicans in the state asked the Texas Supreme Court to intervene.
Beginning Oct. 2, according to the proclamation, ballots by voters who are eligible to vote by mail must be delivered to a single early voting clerk’s office location as publicly designated by a county’s early voting clerk.
Early voting clerks are also required to allow poll watchers to observe any activity conducted at the early voting clerk’s office location related to the in-person delivery of a marked mail ballot, according to the proclamation.
The proclamation was challenged in court and nine days later, on Oct. 9, a federal district court judge temporarily blocked it.
Austin District Judge Robert Pitman ruled that Abbott’s proclamation was too late. Harris and Travis counties, for example, had already set up 11 and 3 drop off sites for absentee ballots, respectively. They also had already announced and began implementing their mail-in ballot plans.
In a 46-page ruling, Pitman argued that changing election law too close to an election would create voter confusion and complications for election officials.
“Even without declaratory evidence, it is apparent that closing ballot return centers at the last minute would cause confusion, especially when those centers were deemed safe, authorized, and, in fact, advertised as a convenient option just months ago,” Pitman wrote.
On Saturday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office filed an emergency motion with the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for a stay.
“The district court’s order undermines our election security, disrupts the democratic process, and will only lead to voter confusion. It cannot stand,” Paxton said in a statement. “Mail-in ballots are particularly vulnerable to fraud. Protections that ensure their security must be upheld and my office will continue to fight for safe, free and fair elections.”
On Sunday, the 5th Circuit Court issued a temporary order overruling Pitman. Now every county is prohibited from having more than one ballot drop-off location.
But counties had already been collecting mail-in ballots and early voting begins Tuesday, critics note, questioning how counties will comply with the stay.
Houston-based attorney Jared Woodfill, who has sued the governor over several executive orders, argues the state’s current election quagmire could have been avoided if Abbott had not single-handedly changed state election law more than once. By first extending the early voting period by one week, Abbott enabled more time for voter fraud to be perpetrated through absentee ballot harvesting when arrests continue to be made over such schemes, Woodfill argues.
Woodfill’s latest lawsuit was filed in response to Abbott’s executive order and proclamation suspending Texas laws and election code, which the governor said was “in response to the COVID-19 disaster.” Despite Woodfill’s plaintiffs’ efforts asking the Texas Supreme Court to intervene – early voting begins Oct. 13 instead of Oct. 19, as initially determined by law.
“Shockingly, Governor Abbott is having to undo one of his many unconstitutional orders with another unconstitutional order,” Woodfill, referring to the Oct. 1 proclamation, told The Center Square. “That’s what happens when you ignore the Texas Constitution and sideline the Legislature. Why is Abbott afraid to convene the Texas Legislature? He seems to have forgotten he serves at the pleasure of we the people.”