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Federal judge blocks Gov. Abbott's order restricting Texas counties to one ballot drop-off location

U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman said the order placed an unacceptable burden on the voting rights of elderly and disabled Texans.

AUSTIN, Texas — In an order on Friday, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction that bars enforcement of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Oct. 1 order limiting ballot drop-off locations to one per county.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman said the order placed an unacceptable burden on the voting rights of elderly and disabled Texans, a group likely to request an absentee ballot.

To request a mail-in ballot in Texas, you must be 65 or older, sick or disabled, out of the county on Election Day and during the period for early voting or be confined to jail but otherwise eligible.

RELATED: Federal judge hears arguments for, against Gov. Abbott's order to limit ballot drop-off locations

The judge’s decision noted sick and elderly voters are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

“By limiting ballot return centers to one per county, older and disabled voters living in Texas’s largest and most populous counties must travel further distances to more crowded ballot return centers where they would be at an increased risk of being infected by the coronavirus in order to exercise their right to vote and have it counted,” Pitman said.

Pitman said if absentee voters choose not to deliver their ballot in person to avoid contracting the coronavirus, they risk disenfranchisement if the U.S. Postal Service is unable to deliver their ballots in time.

“By forcing absentee voters to risk infection with a deadly disease to return their ballots in person or disenfranchisement if [USPS] is unable to deliver their ballots in time, the October 1 Order imposes a burden on an already vulnerable voting population,” he said.

Last Thursday, Gov. Abbott issued a proclamation that restricted counties to having just one mail-in ballot drop-off location for the entire county. In Travis County, that reduced the four locations already set up to just one at the Travis County Tax Office.

Quickly after, several groups sued the governor and other elected officials. The National and Texas League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) filed federal suit first on Oct. 1, claiming the governor’s order “engenders voter confusion and undermines the public’s confidence in the election itself.”

Then on Oct. 2, the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans sued in federal court, claiming the governor’s proclamation “threatens the right to vote for countless lawful Texas voters.”

Gov. Abbott said his proclamation was intended to enhance ballot security protocols.

“As we work to preserve Texans’ ability to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take extra care to strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state. These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting,” Gov. Abbott said in a statement when he announced the proclamation.

Following the first lawsuit, the governor’s office told KVUE in a statement:

“The Governor has not limited voting—instead he has expanded access to voting. Before the Governor’s executive order, Texans who wanted to vote by mail could either mail their ballot or submit it in person on Election Day only. Because of COVID-19, the governor’s executive order increased the time period during which voters can submit their mail in ballot in person to include anytime leading up to Election Day. That time period did not exist under current law. Moreover, the only ballots subject to this order are mail-in ballots. Most of those ballots are in fact submitted by mail. The additional time provided for those who want to submit their mail in ballot in person is sufficient to accommodate the limited number of people who have traditionally used that voting strategy.”

A third federal lawsuit was filed Oct. 6 by the Texas State Conference of the NAACP branches, claiming the governor’s proclamation was a “thinly veiled attempt to suppress the vote under the guise of ‘enhancing ballot security’.” A hearing for that case has not been set.

A fourth lawsuit, filed in the Travis County District Court by the Anti-Defamation League, alleges the governor’s proclamation “violates the Texas constitution – in addition to being inconsistent with principles of efficient election administration and fundamental fairness to all Texas voters.” That case was assigned to Travis County’s 353rd Civil District Court but a hearing has not been set.

After the ruling on Friday, the Texas Democrats issued a statement, calling it a "common sense" ruling.

"Gov. Abbott’s attempt to suppress Texas voters has been thwarted," said Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa. "Judge Pitman’s common sense order followed well-established law and stopped the governor from making up election rules after the election started. Frankly, it ought to be a shock to all of us that such a ruling is even required."

Travis County said it is working on how to best reopen other drop-off locations that were closed by the governor's order.

"We are grateful the court recognized what is best for voters," the county said in a statement. "Travis County Elections will do everything possible to assure that voters receive clear information and advice about the newest ruling, and that the ballot of every eligible voter is counted."

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is likely to appeal the ruling.

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