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(Sam Noble)

H-E-B owner Charles Butt sent a letter to the Texas Supreme Court this week in support of mail-in voting, in which he noted the changes his company has made to help customers feel safer during the pandemic.

Charles Butt, the billionaire owner of the H-E-B grocery chain, has sent a letter to the Texas Supreme Court supporting mail-in voting and urging state and federal courts to be nonpartisan, a condition he said "today seems to be in jeopardy."

"It's always been my impression that the more people who vote, the stronger our democracy will be," Butt wrote.

The letter, which was sent Wednesday and circulated publicly today, came on the heels of an action by the Supreme Court to temporarily block Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins's effort to send mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters in his jurisdiction, which includes the city of Houston.

The high court's ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by the Harris County Republican Party. The court's ruling followed Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's filing of a lawsuit last week in an attempt to halt the mailing out of mail-in ballot applications. Paxton is an elected Republican.

"My knowledge of the judicial world is not deep, but it seems to me that it is important for both state and federal courts to retain their nonpartisan reputation, which today seems to be in jeopardy," Butt wrote.

San Antonio-based H-E-B serves communities across Texas and through Mexico. The family-owned chain has more than 340 stories—including about 50 in Austin and the surrounding area. It employs more than 100,000 people and has annual sales exceeding $20 billion.

Unlike most states, Texas restricts mail-in voting eligibility to those who are over 65, have a disability, are out of town during an election or in jail. While the state requires voters to cite one of these excuses when applying for a mail-in ballot, the Texas Supreme Court recently ruled that election officials may not require proof of eligibility.

As the Nov. 3 general election approaches, a flurry of recent lawsuits—led by the state Democratic Party and voting rights organizations—has attempted to expand mail-in voting eligibility. Thus far, judges have ruled that under current state law fear alone of contracting the coronavirus does not make someone eligible for mail-in voting.

State GOP leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, oppose expanding eligibility, which they say will lead to voter fraud. Democrats argue that failing to let people vote by mail is tantamount to voter suppression.

In his letter, Butt, who is H-E-B's chairman and chief executive officer, mentioned the changes H-E-B has made to help customers feel safe while shopping during the pandemic, such as expanding curbside pick-up and home-delivery options.

"Based on our experience at H-E-B, many people, including those of all ages, are nervous about contracting the virus," he wrote. "By extension, in my opinion, many would be anxious about voting in person. Clerk Hollins has reasonably given these voters a chance to guard against perilous exposure in a manner consistent with this Court's opinion and the Election Code."

On the ground in Austin

Travis County has not gone to the extent of the Harris County clerk's action in sending mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said she has considered sending mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters over 65 but decided against doing so because political parties already do so.

"We chose to spend our money a little more wisely," she told Austonia.

But the county clerk's office has already received a record-breaking number of mail-in ballot applications for the Nov. 3 election, the vast majority—around 85%—of whom are 65 years or older.

As of Thursday afternoon, 52,000 voters had applied for a mail-in ballot, and DeBeauvoir anticipates as many as 100,000 voters will do so by the Oct. 23 deadline. In the 2016 general election, her office only sent out 27,000 mail-in ballots to approved applicants.

"It is most definitely COVID," she said of the increase. "People are afraid to come inside."

Given the turmoil at the U.S. Postal Service, DeBeauvoir recommends eligible voters who wish to vote by mail submit their applications as soon as they can.

"We've seen turnaround times from three days [and] I've seen it be 10 days," she said. "It's not consistent."

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