By Emma Platoff
Voting rights advocates and civic groups have rushed to the courthouse in a bid to block Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's Oct. 1 order allowing Texas counties no more than one drop-off location for voters casting absentee ballots, calling the directive an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote that will disproportionately impact voters of color in the state's biggest cities.
The Texas and National Leagues of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas and two Texas voters asked a federal judge in Austin in a lawsuit filed late Thursday to overturn the governor's order, which forced Travis and Harris counties — two of the state's most important Democratic strongholds — to shutter a number of drop-off sites they had already opened this week.
"The impact of this eleventh-hour decisions is momentous, targets Texas' most vulnerable voters—older voters, and voters with disabilities—and results in wild variations in access to absentee voting drop-off locations depending on the county a voter resides in," attorneys for the groups argued. "It also results in predictable disproportionate impacts on minority communities that already hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis."
Attorneys also pointed out that Abbott was making a major change to election procedures just weeks away from an election — an action the state and its attorneys argued was improper in a separate federal lawsuit over straight-ticket voting.
Unprecedented numbers of Texas voters are requesting mail-in ballots for the highly charged election as the nation is in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. Many of those voters are expected to drop off their ballots in person rather than entrusting them to the U.S. Postal Service, which has been plagued by cutbacks and doubts over its ability to deliver ballots early enough to be counted.
Texas Republicans have vigorously fought efforts to facilitate increased mail-in balloting, particularly in Harris County, the state's largest and a Democratic stronghold where voter turnout could prove pivotal in this year's election.
Asked about the lawsuit, Abbott spokesman John Wittman said the governor "has expanded access to voting."
Months ago, Abbott extended the early voting period by nearly a week and allowed voters to deliver their absentee ballots in person earlier than usual, citing the pandemic. His order this week limited where voters may turn in those ballots, not when.
Wittman added that the governor's Oct. 1 order concerns only absentee ballots, most of which he said are 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," Wittman said.
But more absentee ballots than ever are expected to be cast this year — some counties have already sent out twice as many as usual — and there are concerns about delays from the U.S. Postal Service.
The lawsuit will have to move quickly, with early voting set to begin in less than two weeks on Oct. 13.
Harris and Travis counties had each set up multiple locations for accepting absentee ballots and had already begun accepting them before Abbott issued his order shutting down the satellite locations. Voting rights experts say access to these locations is especially important given concerns over U.S. Postal Service delays and that closing them will disproportionately impact voters with disabilities or without access to reliable transportation. Harris County is home to 2.4 million registered voters and stretches across some 1,700 square miles, more than the entire state of Rhode Island.
Ralph Edelbach of Cypress, an 82-year-old voter among those suing Abbott, had planned to drop his ballot off at a Harris County location that was 16 miles from his home — but now will have to travel 36 miles, nearly 90 minutes round trip, to reach the only location Abbott has allowed to stay open, according to court documents.
At a press conference Friday morning, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said he could reopen the shuttered locations "at the drop of a dime."
"Ultimately, anything that's done to decrease voter convenience, to put obstacles in the way of the voter, is voter suppression, and will lead to disenfranchisement," he said.
Abbott's order, which came a day after the Texas solicitor general approved Harris County's plan for multiple locations under earlier guidance from the governor, also said counties must allow poll watchers to observe goings-on at ballot drop-off sites. Voting rights advocates fear that poll watchers, who are selected by candidates or political parties, will seek to intimidate voters, as has been documented in the past.
Abbott claimed the limits on drop-off locations were necessary to ensure election integrity. But he provided no evidence that the drop-off sites enable voter fraud, which experts say is rare.
And the procedures for delivering an absentee ballot are strict. Voters must present an approved form of identification, show up during specified hours and can only deliver their own ballots.
Texas is one of just a few states that is not allowing all voters to cast their ballots by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. Beyond extending the early voting timeframe, the state has done very little to expand Texans' options for voting safely this fall. And its criteria for absentee ballots are unusually strict: Voters can vote by mail only if they are 65 or older, confined in jail but otherwise eligible, out of the county for the election period or cite a disability. The Texas Supreme Court has said that lack of immunity to the novel coronavirus does not itself constitute a disability, but that voters may consider that alongside their medical histories to decide whether they qualify.
Harris County started accepting completed applications Sept. 28, and had collected 39 as of Thursday evening. Travis County opened four locations Oct. 1.
Democrats and voting rights groups immediately condemned Abbott's as an attempt at voter suppression.
Ross Ramsey contributed to this report.
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With major entertainment events slated for October, the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is gearing up for a busy month.
Artists and music lovers are set to pack into Zilker Park for The Austin City Limits Music Festival in the coming two weekends. Following that, Formula One will bring racing fans to the Circuit of the Americas.
For those two events, the airport is anticipating high passenger days with 30,000 or more people departing flights.
ABIA recommends arriving at least two and a half hours in advance for domestic flights on those days. For ACL, it's expected on both Sundays of the festival along with the Monday and Tuesday after. The F1-driven high passenger days are expected on Oct. 20-21 and Oct. 23-26.
\u201c#AustinCityLimits visitors, you\u2019re in for a weird and wild ride \ud83e\udd18\u262e\ufe0f \n\nFlying in or out of our airport? We got firm and fun tips for you: https://t.co/RawVRalOXN\u201d— Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) (@Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS)) 1664894083
F1, especially, could draw in loads of travelers as the three-day event saw 400,000 attendees last year. ABIA warns that highways leading to the airport may see even higher traffic than usual around the event and that travelers should plan their route accordingly.
Bailey Grimmett, a spokesperson for ABIA, said travel numbers come in 24 hours in advance. So, it's hard to predict if the airport will see travel volumes at the same levels that have happened around previous F1 races or if it'll top ACL's flight traffic.
Still, she says historical knowledge points to a chance for it.
“We've had that Monday after F1 break the record for single busiest in airport history," Grimmett said. "So context clues I would say yes, but I can't confirm that. But the historical background points to that."
In anticipation of the high volume of flyers, the airport received additional TSA officers for security screening through the end of October. To prepare even further, the Department of Aviation and partners hosted a job showcase and hiring fair to address the continued labor shortage the airport has experienced.
Relief from hectic travel days is on the horizon with November likely to see a slowdown.
"I don't anticipate it will be as busy as October just because we don't have as many events going on," Grimmett said. "Thanksgiving is kind of our primary holiday that we see a lot of passengers coming in and out of the airport."