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A Travis County judge on Thursday ruled that Texas counties can have multiple drop-off locations for hand delivery of absentee ballots, overriding Gov. Greg Abbott's recent directive limiting counties to one drop-off location. But it remains unclear if state District Judge Tim Sulak's decision will lead to the reopening of ballot drop-off locations that were shut down in Harris and Travis counties after Abbott's order.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, on behalf of Abbott and Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs, immediately filed an appeal that paused Sulak's decision until the state's 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin reviews it.
Sulak's ruling is the latest turn in a handful of lawsuits in state and federal courts challenging Abbott’s Oct. 1 order, which shut down multiple ballot drop-off locations in Harris and Travis counties.
Voting in Texas
When was the last day to register to vote?
The deadline to register to vote in the 2020 general election was Oct. 5. Check if you’re registered to vote here. If not, you’ll need to fill out and submit an application, which you can request here or download here.
When can I vote early?
Early voting for the 2020 general election runs from Oct. 13 to Oct. 30. Voters can cast ballots at any polling location in the county where they are registered to vote during early voting. Election Day is Nov. 3.
How will voting be different because of the pandemic?
In general, polling locations will have guidelines in place for social distancing and regular cleaning. Several counties will offer ballot marking devices so voters avoid contact with election equipment. Poll workers will likely be wearing face masks and other protective equipment, but masks will not be required for voters.
How do I know if I qualify to vote by mail?
Texas is one of just a few states that hasn’t opened up mail-in voting to any voter concerned about getting COVID-19 at a polling place. You can find eligibility requirements and review other questions about voting by mail here.
Are polling locations the same on Election Day as they are during early voting?
Not always. You’ll want to check for open polling locations with your local elections office before you head out to vote. Additionally, you can confirm with your county elections office whether Election Day voting is restricted to locations in your designated precinct or if you can cast a ballot at any polling place.
Can I still vote if I have COVID-19?
Yes. If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are exhibiting symptoms, consider requesting an emergency mail-in ballot or using curbside voting. Contact your county elections office for more details about both options.
See our voter guide
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The Travis County lawsuit, filed by a Texas-based Anti-Defamation League, voting rights advocacy group and a voter, is similar to several federal lawsuits. On Monday, a federal appeals court upheld the Republican governor’s order under federal law, overturning a lower court’s ruling. The Travis County decision, however, applies to potential violations of state law.
The state court challenge argues that the governor doesn’t have authority under state law to limit absentee ballot hand delivery locations and that his order violates voters’ equal protection rights under the state constitution.
“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,” Sulak wrote.
Acting on concerns of voter safety during a pandemic, Abbott in July lengthened the early voting period and extended the time voters have to deliver completed absentee ballots in person to county clerk offices. But after large Democratic counties, including Harris and Travis, established several sites where voters could deliver their ballots, Abbott issued an order that limited such drop-off locations to one per county.
Before the governor's Oct. 1 order, Travis County had four drop-off locations for hand delivery of mail-in ballots and Harris County had a dozen in place. To drop off a mail-in ballot in person at any location, voters must present an approved form of identification to the poll worker, and voters may not turn in any one else’s ballot.
While a spokesperson for the governor did not answer questions on how allowing multiple locations for ballot delivery might lead to fraud, according to a filing by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, it had become clear that counties including Harris, Travis and Fort Bend, which had recently announced plans to open multiple mail-in-ballot delivery locations, wouldn’t provide “adequate election security, including poll watchers.” These “inconsistencies,” he said, “introduced a risk to ballot integrity, such as by increasing the possibility of ballot harvesting.”
The governor's limiting order was quickly challenged by multiple voting right groups in federal court and in Travis County. And three Democratic chairs of high-profile congressional committees called the move an apparent "last-ditch effort to suppress Texans’ ability to vote."
Abbott's order, however, has been upheld in federal appellate court. Max Feldman, council at the Brennan Center for Justice, which is representing the ADL and other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said Thursday that though some of their arguments are the same as those that lost in federal court, state courts can uphold different rulings based on state law.
"While there are similarities in terms of the scope of the rights, the federal courts' view of the federal constitution does not control the state courts' resolution of these issues under the state constitution," he said.
Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.