A flurry of late lawsuits and court rulings has muddled the Nov. 3 election, but the impact on voters is finally beginning to sort out.
Straight-ticket voting is out.
Voting by mail was not expanded to all voters during the pandemic, though the option remains a personal choice within certain limits.
Face masks are recommended but will not be required inside polling places.
Signatures on mail-in ballot envelopes will still be checked against signatures on file at county election offices.
Ballots will include more than 40 Libertarian and Green Party candidates even though they did not pay a newly created filing fee.
All of those outcomes were the result of court action, but there are still several legal challenges that have yet to play out.
Most recently, two federal lawsuits have been filed to try to undo Gov. Greg Abbott’s Thursday order that limited counties to one drop-off location where voters can hand-deliver mail-in ballots.
Another pending challenge is from GOP leaders and activists who want to overturn Abbott’s order to improve safety during the pandemic by adding six days of early voting and allowing mail-in ballots to be hand-delivered to county offices before Election Day.
The Texas Supreme Court has not yet ruled on that challenge, so for now, early voting is set to begin Oct. 13 and each county will be able to open one drop-off site for ballots.
Here’s where things stand on a number of important issues heading into the final stretch toward the Nov. 3 election:
Voting by mail
Texas requires all voters to cast ballots in person unless they fall under at least one of four exceptions — they are 65 or older, have a sickness or disability, will be traveling during the entire voting period or are in jail but still eligible to cast a ballot.
State and federal lawsuits to give every voter the opportunity to vote by mail during the pandemic, led mainly by Democrats, were aggressively opposed by Ken Paxton, the state’s Republican attorney general.
After lower-court victories for the Democrats, appeals courts blocked efforts to expand voting by mail for the 2020 election.
Most significantly, the Texas Supreme Court rejected arguments that a lack of immunity to the coronavirus is a disability that gives every voter access to a mail-in ballot.
“We agree, of course, that a voter can take into consideration aspects of his health and his health history that are physical conditions,” the court ruled. “We disagree that lack of immunity, by itself, is one of them.”
But the court also acknowledged that state law leaves the decision to each voter. Applications to receive a mail-in ballot contain only boxes to check, including one marked “disability,” with no explanation needed or requested. Election officials cannot question or investigate a voter’s choice.
“The decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s, subject to a correct understanding of the statutory definition of ‘disability,’ ” the court said.
The court defined disability as “illness, injury or wounds” — a sickness or physical condition that prevents in-person voting without a likelihood of needing assistance or harming the voter’s health.
Beyond that, the court offered little advice for voters on how to make that decision on a vote-by-mail application that warns that providing false information is a crime.
On Sept. 25, a federal judge in Laredo blocked Texas from enforcing a new law that banned straight-ticket voting, saying it required vastly more time to fill out a ballot, leading to longer lines at polling places and more risk of coronavirus exposure for voters and poll workers.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the ruling five days later, saying that, with early voting less than two weeks away, the district judge had waited too long to act on a law that was passed in 2017 and took effect one month ago.
The appeals court will still consider an appeal, which Paxton has not yet filed, that will seek to affirm the state law ending straight-ticket voting.
But that step won’t be taken until after the Nov. 3 election, meaning voters will not be able to select all candidates of a single party with one punch this year.
Polling place safety
Local election officials have implemented numerous steps to avoid spreading the coronavirus, but a federal lawsuit by civil rights groups wanted more, including a court order requiring face masks at polls and crowd control measures such as more polling locations and additional voting machines.
U.S. District Judge Jason Pulliam in San Antonio dismissed the lawsuit last month, saying the power to administer elections and set voting procedures belongs to the Legislature and state agencies, not the courts.
The organizations turned to the 5th Circuit Court, which put the case on an expedited schedule and will hear oral arguments on Wednesday, although the same court recently rejected the order on one-punch voting due to the looming election.
Meantime, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office, voters cannot be turned away from polling places for declining to wear a mask.
On mail-in ballots, voters must sign the outer envelope so the signature can be compared with one provided on their vote-by-mail application.
On Sept. 8, a federal judge in San Antonio gave Texas officials 10 days to fix the way signatures are compared, ruling that voting rights are endangered because voters do not have an adequate chance to correct signature problems if a ballot is rejected.
Once again, however, the 5th Circuit Court intervened, blocking the ruling while it considers Paxton’s appeal of the order.
The next round of legal briefs is due at the appeals court on Nov. 9, a week after the general election.
Absentee ballot drop-off
On Thursday, the same day Travis County opened four locations to let voters hand deliver mail-in ballots, Abbott issued an order limiting drop-off sites to one per county.
Abbott said the change was needed for election security. Democrats accused him of making it harder to vote in mainly Democratic counties.
Civil and voting rights groups filed a lawsuit the same day, arguing that Abbott’s order placed an unreasonable burden on voters and promoted voter confusion. The Texas Alliance for Retired Americans filed a separate lawsuit Friday arguing that the closures placed a particular burden on older voters.
Abbott used his pandemic-related emergency powers in July to suspend state laws that required early voting to begin on Oct. 19 and allowed voters to hand-deliver mail-in ballots only on Election Day.
Leading Republicans who have criticized Abbott’s pandemic orders as intrusive — including Texas GOP Chairman Allen West and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller — asked the Texas Supreme Court to overturn the order as a violation of state law and the Texas Constitution.
The all-Republican court sought Paxton’s opinion on the matter (he backed Abbott’s order as legal) but has not yet acted on the request.
Harris County waits
Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is awaiting word from the state Supreme Court on whether he can move forward with a plan to send vote-by-mail applications to all registered voters in the county.
Two lower courts have supported Hollins’ plan, saying he intends to include adequate information about who qualifies for a mail-in ballot.
Paxton has opposed the effort, saying Hollins lacks the legal authority to mass-mail unsolicited applications, and the state Supreme Court halted the mailings while it considers Paxton’s appeal.