Texas has some of the strictest regulations on mail voting in the country — and its supreme court just made sure they won’t be loosened in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Texas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday evening that lack of immunity to COVID-19 does not qualify the state’s voters to apply for a mail-in ballot, siding with Republicans who are seeking to force almost everyone in the state to vote in person in spite of possible health risks.
“We agree with the State that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a ‘disability’ as defined by the Election Code,” the court’s majority wrote in its opinion.
Texas is one of 18 states where voters have to have an excuse to request a mail ballot. But while a number of other states with similar laws have sought to loosen them in the face of the pandemic to make it easier for people to vote safely, including a number with GOP leadership, Texas Republicans have steadfastly refused to do so.
The only people who can ask for a mail ballot without an excuse in the state are those aged 65 or older, can prove they have a valid need to be out of their home county on election day, have a disability or illness preventing them from being able to vote in-person, or are imprisoned but still eligible to vote.
The court ruled that fear of COVID-19 doesn’t count as a medical excuse.
The conservative-dominated court did leave some wiggle room for individual voters to decide themselves whether underlying health issues justify an application for a ballot.
"We agree, of course, that a voter can take into consideration aspects of his health and his health history that are physical conditions in deciding whether, under the circumstances, to apply to vote by mail because of disability," the court wrote.
And it said that local and county officials could still provide mail ballots for those requesting them using coronavirus as a reason, ending attempts from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) to block them from doing so. That could matter in Democratic-controlled, more urban counties where the virus may be more prevalent — and where historically voting systems have been the most problematic, forcing people to stand in line for hours to cast their ballots.
But this makes it more likely that most voters in the country’s second most populous state will have to vote in person this fall, no matter what the coronavirus pandemic looks like at that point.
But Paxton has dug in against mail-voting, following the lead of President Trump, who has repeatedly and falsely claimed that mail voting is rife with fraud even as he’s cast absentee ballots himself. Trump’s claims on the subject have become so wild that Twitter stepped in for the first time to fact-check him.
"In-person voting is the surest way to maintain the integrity of our elections, prevent voter fraud and guarantee that every voter is who they claim to be,” Paxton said in response to the ruling.
Texas has a number of competitive congressional races that could help determine whether Democrats keep control of the House — Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has repeatedly called it “ground zero” of the 2020 House campaign map. Some Democrats hope that they can put the fast-changing state in play at the presidential level as well.
This isn’t the last straw: Democrats are also pursuing changes in federal court. A federal judge recently ruled that they were right and mail voting should be allowed, though Paxton is appealing that ruling.
Cover: Voters wait in line to cast their ballots on March 3, 2020 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Edward A. Ornelas/Getty Images)