Voting Rights Roundup: Texas GOP launches attack on Dems and voters of color by limiting mail voting
● Texas: On Thursday, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order that prohibited Texas' 254 counties from setting up more than one location for voters to drop off their absentee mail ballots regardless of population size, sparking a firestorm of condemnation and drawing a federal lawsuit from voting rights advocates seeking to block the move for discriminating against voters of color. With the Trump administration attempting to sabotage postal delivery and causing delays that risk ballots not arriving on time, in-person dropoff locations are a key alternative for ensuring mail ballots count.
Abbott's move is a thinly veiled attack on voting access for the state's rapidly growing Black, Latino, and Asian American populations and the Democrats they support, since those groups are largely concentrated in just a handful of massively populated counties. Harris County (home to Houston) alone has nearly 5 million residents and would have only one location in a jurisdiction roughly the size of Delaware, and together with several other counties with populations over 1 million containing cities such as Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio, they hold a disproportionate share of the state's Democrats and voters of color.
By contrast, well over one hundred of the state's smallest counties have electorates that are overwhelmingly white and therefore strongly Republican, leading to vast partisan and racial disparities in the number of dropoff locations per capita—though this order will require GOP voters in sprawling rural counties to also travel larger distances to drop off their mail ballots if they vote that way. However, because Democrats may be much likelier to vote by mail thanks to Trump's demagoguery discouraging Republicans from doing so, Democrats will likely face much more difficulty than Republicans with casting their ballots thanks to this order.
Texas has been ground zero for voter suppression in 2020 just as it finally becomes a key battleground state for the first time in decades, and Democrats have a critical chance to flip the state House this fall and block Republicans from passing the most important congressional gerrymander of any state after the 2020 census. Republicans have so far successfully fought back lawsuits and preserved a requirement that voters under age 65 have a non-COVID excuse to vote by mail—elderly voters, of course, are much whiter and therefore more conservative than the electorate overall.
Houston and Harris County have been the focus of much of the GOP's efforts to restrict voting, and a state appeals court has rejected a separate GOP challenge to a plan by officials there to send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. However, the county remains barred from mailing out ballots due to an earlier preliminary ruling by the Texas Supreme Court. A final ruling from the high court is expected soon.
Relatedly, Republican activists have filed an additional lawsuit asking the all-Republican state Supreme Court to limit in-person voting in Harris County by shortening the start of early voting from Oct. 13 to Oct. 19, even though Abbott himself had added the additional six days of early voting statewide, and they want to bar the county from accepting mail ballots in-person before Election Day instead of throughout the early voting period as is currently allowed. These same activists are also challenging Abbott's early voting order in a case that was filed last month and is pending before the state high court.
● Arkansas: A federal district court has refused to issue a preliminary injunction that would have blocked a state law that Republican officials and the conservative-dominated state Supreme Court had used to disqualify all of the signatures that redistricting reformers had submitted for a ballot initiative to create an independent redistricting commission. The federal court dismissed the case with prejudice, prompting proponents to give up on winning a 2020 ballot measure battle. Although the measure remains on the ballot, its votes won't be valid.
While redistricting reformers vowed to pursue another ballot initiative in a future election, this ruling means Republicans will get to gerrymander the state after 2020 for the first time since Reconstruction (if not ever). Even worse, it's a potentially fatal setback for the reform movement going forward because of a measure Republicans have themselves referred to November's ballot to effectively make it impossible to attempt future ballot initiatives without supermajority support that includes many white conservative voters.
The GOP's November ballot measure would amend Arkansas' constitution to require supporters meet the signature threshold in 45 of 75 counties instead of the current 15. However, because Democrats, Black voters, and a majority of the state's population overall are heavily concentrated in a minority of counties, this requires initiative proponents to obtain signatures in heavily white and therefore conservative counties, making it harder for progressives but not conservatives to put initiatives on the ballot.
● Arizona: The Supreme Court has agreed to take up Republicans' appeal of a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that had determined Republicans had intentionally discriminated against Native American, Latino, and Black voters by enacting restrictions on counting votes cast in the wrong precinct but in the right county, as well as limitations on who can turn in another person's absentee mail ballot on their behalf. These two consolidated cases have potentially enormous and dire implications for the future of the Voting Rights Act, which we will further detail in a future Roundup.
● Michigan: A federal district court has ruled partially in favor of Democrats by temporarily blocking a lone-in-the-nation law prohibiting the use of paid transportation to the polls such as ride-hailing services and hired drivers, but the court refused to block another limitation preventing most third-parties from collecting voters' completed absentee ballots and delivering them to officials on those voters' behalf.
● North Carolina: A GOP-majority panel of state Court of Appeals judges has ruled 2-1 along party lines to overturn a lower court ruling and uphold two constitutional amendments that Republicans had placed on the ballot in 2018, which were approved by voters, rejecting the NAACP's argument that the GOP legislature had lacked the authority to amend the state constitution because they had relied on unconstitutional gerrymanders that had been struck down and redrawn. The NAACP is appealing to the state Supreme Court, which has a 6-1 Democratic majority, to overturn the two amendments, which required voter ID and capped the maximum income tax rate.
Regardless, the voter ID requirement was already not in effect for 2020 due to separate federal and state litigation that temporarily blocked the implementing statute itself while those cases proceed on the merits.
● Texas: The conservative-dominated 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has stayed a recent lower court ruling that would have blocked the GOP's repeal of the straight-ticket voting option for November, dealing a blow to voting access for Black and Latino voters, who are disproportionately likely to use the option, since the lack of the option means it will take much longer to fill out Texas' unusually long ballot and thus exacerbate voting lines.
● Wisconsin: A federal district court has said it won't rule before the election on whether to curtail the GOP's limitation on the use of college IDs for satisfying the voter ID law, saying there is too little time left to resolve the issue without disrupting the election process.
● Post Office: Three separate federal lower courts have issued rulings in recent weeks blocking the Trump administration from implementing changes to the U.S. Postal Service unilaterally in a manner that undermined service speed and reliability across the country over the summer. The courts ordered the post office to cease implementing changes such as limits on delivery trips and the removal of mailboxes and sorting machines. Additionally, one court ordered that election mail be prioritized and overtime requests be pre-approved for the two weeks surrounding Election Day.
Trump's postmaster general, major GOP donor Louis DeJoy, had ordered changes intended to sabotage the post office's ability to handle a historic surge in mail voting as a way to disenfranchise mail voters, who are largely Democratic thanks to Democratic concerns about the pandemic and Trump's demagoguery discouraging GOP voters from following suit at a similar rate. TIME reported that one of those changes was the post office's failure to update 1.8 million address changes, meaning thousands of voters may not receive their ballots at the correct address.
It's unclear, though, whether these court rulings will eliminate the service delays that began appearing after DeJoy's appointment earlier this year. Consequently, voters should strongly consider wearing a mask to go vote early in-person if they deem it safe enough, but if they plan to vote by mail, they should return their ballot by mail no later than two weeks before Election Day. Better yet, voters should return their mail ballots in-person at a drop box, polling place, or their local elections office where allowed by state law to avoid mail delivery delays entirely.
● Florida: Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his allives have fundraised $16 million to pay off the fines of nearly 32,000 Black and Latino voters with felony convictions in response to Florida Republicans passing a modern-day poll tax by requiring people with felony convictions to pay off court fines and fees before regaining their voting rights, even though the state can't even tell countless affected individuals how much money they owe. The plaintiffs' expert witness estimated that roughly 43% of the 775,000 people barred from voting were Black, meaning this group likely leans decidedly Democratic compared to those who don't owe court costs.
The ultra-wealthy Bloomberg has committed $100 million to helping Joe Biden win Florida, and his effort is intended to blunt the racial and partisan discrimination behind the GOP's poll tax by only focusing on Black and Latino voters, since they're much likelier to lean Democratic than whites. In response, Republican state Attorney General Ashley Moody asked federal law enforcement to investigate Bloomberg's group for potential election law violations, making this whole ordeal further harken back to the ugliness of the Jim Crow era, when law enforcement was routinely wielded as a cudgel against Black voting advocates.
● North Carolina: Civil rights groups have filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to block a state law making it a serious crime for people with felony convictions that render them disenfranchised to impermissibly vote before their rights are restored, even if it's unintentional, a move that comes after a state court recently struck down a law that required the payment of court fines and fees for certain people to be able to regain their voting rights.
● 2020 Census: Late on Friday, the Justice Department announced it would go all the way to the Supreme Court if needed to overturn a flurry of recent lower court orders blocking the Trump administration's attempt to cut short the census' in-person counting operations. Earlier in the week, both the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and a district court had ordered the census to continue counting up through its originally planned Oct. 31 deadline instead of ending operations at the end of September, leading to the Census Bureau making an announcement that it would comply on Friday shortly before the DOJ vowed to appeal.
● Alabama: A federal judge in Alabama has blocked the state's witness and photo ID requirements for mail-in voting this year for voters at higher risk from COVID-19. Republicans say they will appeal.
● Alaska: Republican election officials, who previously sent absentee ballot applications to all voters 65 and older, have agreed to email voters who didn't receive applications as part of this mailing with instructions on how to vote by mail. Separately, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said it would not have time to resolve a challenge to the state's decision to favor seniors before the election, which a lower court previously rejected.
● Arizona: A federal judge has rejected a lawsuit asking that ballots from the Navajo Nation be counted if they are received after Election Day so long as they are postmarked by that date. Separately, voting rights group have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to extend Arizona's voter registration deadline from Oct. 5 to Oct. 27
● Georgia: Two Trump-appointed judges on the 11th Circuit Court of appeals have reversed a ruling over the dissent of the panel's lone Democratic appointee to reinstate a requirement that mail ballots be received by officials no later than Election Day, overturning the lower court's decision that had allowed ballots to count if postmarked by Election Day and received within a few days afterward.
In a separate case, a federal district court judge has ruled that Georgia election officials must maintain paper backups of voter registration data at every polling site in order to prevent the sort of problems that plagued the state's June primary, when many electronic data systems failed and caused long lines in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Republicans asked the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn that ruling on Friday, too.
● Indiana: A federal court has ordered Indiana to accept mail ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by Nov. 13. Republicans are reportedly expected to appeal. Separately, voting rights advocates say they will appeal a lower federal court ruling that rejected their request that all Indiana voters be allowed to request absentee ballots without an excuse instead of only elderly voters, who typically favor Republicans.
Finally, a federal judge has struck down a state law that allowed only county election boards the ability to seek longer voting hours in the event of problems at polling places. Now individual voters will have the power to seek redress in the courts over such issues.
● Iowa: Iowa's conservative-dominated Supreme Court has sided with the Trump campaign against Democrats and let stand decisions that invalidated tens of thousands of absentee mail ballot request forms that voters had already submitted in populous Linn and Woodbury Counties, while a lower court tossed thousands of such applications from heavily Democratic Johnson County. The courts found that these applications, which local officials had sent with partially pre-filled information, violated state law and had to be re-sent to voters blank.
Relatedly, a lower state court has ruled against Democrats and Latino voter advocates by refusing to block the GOP's underlying law that makes it more difficult for election officials to administer absentee mail voting by prohibiting them from using the state's voter database to fill in missing information such as PIN for a voter's ID. Instead, officials must waste their limited time by having to contact potentially tens of thousands of such voters or more, risking some voters not getting mail ballots in time if at all.
Meanwhile, voting rights advocates have filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the GOP's restriction that only allows county election boards to set up ballot collection drop boxes on site at their offices. Plaintiffs want election officials to be able to establish drop boxes anywhere they see fit.
● Louisiana: A federal judge has ordered Louisiana to reinstate the limited expansions to mail voting it established before the state's summer primaries for the November general election, which allowed those at greater risk for COVID-19 to request absentee ballots instead of only elderly voters and those with limited other excuses. Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin says he will not appeal.
● Maine: Maine's state Supreme Court, which is heavily composed of Democratic appointees, has rejected the GOP's request to suspend its late-September decision approving the use of instant-runoff voting for the presidency this November, meaning Maine will be the first state in history to use it for the Electoral College.
● Michigan: A state court judge has ruled that Michigan must count mail ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within two weeks. The judge also blocked a law limiting the class of persons who can assist a voter in returning mail ballots; voters can now ask anyone to return their ballots.
Republicans are appealing the extension of the mail ballot return deadline, and they've also filed a separate suit in federal court challenging the ruling. In addition, they've filed a suit in state court challenging the ballot return assistance ruling.
● Mississippi: The conservative-heavy Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled that those at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 may not request absentee ballots. Separately, leaders in the state's Republican-run legislature say they will not take action to permit no-excuse absentee voting. Mississippi is one of just five states where voters need to present an excuse to request an absentee ballot for the November general election, and all five states exempt elderly voters from the requirement, a demographic that typically leans GOP.
● Missouri: Voting rights advocates have filed a suit in federal court challenging a ban on returning mail ballots in person. They also want voters to be given the chance to cure any problems with mail ballots after they're cast. Separately, a state court judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging the Missouri GOP's requirement that voters have their mail ballots notarized if they are under the age of 65. Two other lawsuits challenging the law are still pending.
● Montana: The Montana Supreme Court, which lacks a reliable liberal or conservative majority, has blocked a law prohibiting third parties from collecting and returning mail ballots from voters. However, the justices overturned a lower court ruling that allowed ballots to count if postmarked by Election Day and received within a few days afterward, and another that would have given voters the opportunity to cure any problems with their ballots, ruling that it was too close to the election to make such changes without potentially confusing voters and creating administrative problems.
Separately, a federal court has rejected a Republican challenge to an order by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock allowing local election officials to conduct the November election by mail. Counties that are home to 94% of Montana's population have chosen this option. Republicans are appealing.
● New York: New York City's Board of Elections had to recently send out a hefty 100,000 replacement mail ballots after the vendor it used to supply ballot materials misprinted the envelopes sent to voters for them to place their ballots in. Numerous voters reported receiving envelopes with the wrong name and return address. While it was unclear how many erroneous envelopes were actually sent to voters or whether the problem extended beyond Brooklyn, the board went ahead with sending replacement ballots and envelopes to the up to 100,000 voters who may have been affected.
For voters who receive two ballots, only the second one should be sent in, and if a voter has already sent in the first ballot, only the second one would count if both are mailed. The replacement ballots also have a red mark that will be noted by the machines used to process them, and officials said they would try to contact voters by phone and email to alert them of the problem
The New York City board has been plagued by problems hurting voting access for years, and while Democrats have passed numerous reforms after gaining control of the state Senate in 2018, the long-troubled board (and its counterparts elsewhere in the state) is one area where they have yet to make major progress. Critics have long derided the system whereby the two major political party organizations select election board members as rife with corruption and patronage instead of encouraging apolitical professionalism.
Meanwhile, a state court judge has rejected a request from voting rights advocates that New York's voter registration deadline be shortened from 25 days before Election Day to just 10 days.
● North Carolina: A state court has approved a settlement allowing officials to count ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by Nov. 12, leading GOP legislators to announce they would appeal. The agreement also makes it easier for voters to cure problems with their ballots and expands the availability of ballot return drop boxes. Separately, a federal court has blocked the Democratic-controlled state Board of Elections from issuing instructions saying election officials should count mail ballots received without a witness signature.
● Ohio: A panel of judges on the state Court of Appeals has ruled that Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose is allowed but not required to let counties set up more than one location for voters to drop off their absentee mail ballots this fall, reversing a recent lower court decision that had ordered LaRose to allow more than one location in each county. LaRose had claimed that state law prevented him from allowing more than one site per county, but Democrats have blasted him for misinterpreting the law to suppress votes, since more populous counties are disproportionately Democratic compared to smaller ones.
LaRose now faces a decision of whether to prove Democrats right by refusing to allow additional locations or work with the counties to set up extra drop boxes, though separate federal litigation remains ongoing that had been on hold until the state appeals court ruled. The federal court in that case had recently ordered LaRose to work with heavily Democratic Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, to set up additional ballot return locations.
Meanwhile, a state appeals court has rejected a request from Democrats in another lawsuit that Ohio officials allow voters to request absentee ballots online. Separately, the Republican-run legislative panel has voted down a proposal from LaRose to have the state pre-pay postage for mail ballots.
● Oklahoma: A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by Democrats challenging Oklahoma's GOP-backed requirement that mail voters have their ballots notarized or include a photocopy of their ID.
● Oregon: Oregon election officials have issued advice on how to vote for those displaced by the recent wildfires that have ravaged the states. Most importantly, voters have until Oct. 13 to designate a temporary address at which they will be sent a mail ballot.
● Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which has a Democratic majority, has ruled that election officials must count ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by the Friday after. In addition, the court ruled that local officials may set up ballot return drop boxes and also affirmed a ban on poll-watchers working in counties other than those they are registered to vote in. Republicans are appealing.
The court also ruled that so-called "naked" mail ballots wouldn't count, leading election officials are warning that up to 100,000 voters could be disenfranchised without adequate voter outreach. Such ballots are mail ballots contained only inside the outer envelope that contains the return address information, but the court's ruling requires that all mail ballots be inserted into a second "privacy envelope" that goes inside the larger return-address envelope. During the primary, such "naked ballots" were counted, risking further voter confusion this fall.
Consequently, Democrats launched TV ads in Philadelphia to warn voters about how to avoid the problem there, and three women running for state and county legislative offices in the Pittsburgh area used photos of themselves "naked" (the photos were censored with graphics of ballot materials) in a public service announcement that went viral on social media to raise awareness about the problem.
Separately, Democratic Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar has informed election officials that they may not reject mail ballots solely based on alleged signature mismatches, settling a suit with voting rights advocates.
● South Carolina: The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, has blocked South Carolina from requiring that absentee ballots be signed by a sitness. Republicans have asked the Supreme Court for an emergency stay of the ruling.
Separately, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has signed a bill allowing all voters to request an absentee ballot for the November election, much as the state did for its primaries earlier this year.
● Wisconsin: A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court ruling ordering Wisconsin election officials to count mail ballots so long as they are postmarked by Election Day and received by Nov. 9. Republicans are seeking an en banc review by the full 7th Circuit.
Additionally, Republicans and the 7th Circuit judges separately made requests asking the state Supreme Court to clarify a July ruling that limited the ability of Republican lawmakers to intervene in litigation, which the state court on Friday agreed to do. The 7th Circuit had relied on the state court's prior ruling in rejecting the GOP's challenge.
Separately, voters in the heavily Democratic state capital of Madison have filed a lawsuit asking a state court judge to affirm the validity of a recent event where city officials received more than 10,000 mail ballots in public parks across the city. Officials plan to hold similar events again, but Republicans have threatened litigation of their own to block them.