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Texas justices block plan to allow people concerned about virus to vote by mail

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The Texas Supreme Court on Friday blocked a lower-court order that had allowed residents to vote by mail if they cite concerns about catching the coronavirus at polling places. Republican state Attorney General Ken Paxton petitioned the court for the stay after an appeals court upheld a lower-court ruling last month that lifted restrictions on mail-in voting.

The stay prevents county election officials from formally taking mail-in ballot applications from voters afraid of coronavirus exposure, which they can do beginning 60 days before an election. Texas held its primary in March, and it wasn't immediately clear whether the high court would hear arguments and issue a final ruling before Election Day in November.

Voting by mail in Texas is generally limited to those 65 or older or those with a "sickness or physical condition" that prevents voting in person. Paxton petitioned the Republican-dominated high court after officials in some predominantly Democratic areas approved measures to would allow voters to claim a disability and request mail-in ballots if they are worried about getting sick at polling places.

County officials and Texas Democrats cast Paxton's move as an effort to disrupt the election and an ongoing voting case. The attorney general's request contends officials in counties that include Dallas, Houston, Austin, El Paso and the border community of Brownsville have broadened eligibility to vote by mail beyond what the Legislature intended.

The ruling comes as the virus has deepened the partisan divide over mail-in voting, with President Trump claiming it is ripe for fraud and Democrats embracing the practice as the safest way to vote during the pandemic. House Democrats included significant funds to bolster states' election infrastructure in a massive coronavirus relief bill passed Friday, in the hopes of assisting states to prepare for potential vote-by-mail general elections.

"Protecting the integrity of elections is one of my most important and sacred obligations," Paxton said in a statement. "The Legislature has carefully limited who may and may not vote by mail. The Travis County trial court's decision to allow everyone to vote by mail is contrary to state law and will be reversed on appeal. I am pleased that today the Texas Supreme Court confirmed that my office may continue to prosecute voter fraud and issue guidance on mail-in ballots while that appeal plays out."

Conversely, Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa called the decision "a dark day for our democracy."

"The Republican Texas Supreme Court is wrong to force the people of Texas to choose between their health and their right to vote," Hinojosa said in a statement. "They would have Texans die, just so they can hold on to power. Voters should have the ability to vote-by-mail during a pandemic if they feel their health is in danger. ... We will continue to fight like hell to protect every eligible Texan's right to vote and have their voices heard by their government."

Meanwhile, several states have postponed or transitioned their primaries to be mainly vote-by-mail due to concerns about the virus, including Republican-controlled states like Ohio, Montana and Indiana. In Georgia, which has a Republican governor and legislature, absentee ballot applications are being mailed to all active voters.

On Friday, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced that the state's primary would be mainly conducted via vote-by-mail, with absentee ballots to be mailed to all registered Republicans and Democrats.

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