Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a proclamation on Thursday that will reduce the number of mail-in ballot drop-off sites in the state to one per county. Abbott said the change would "strengthen voting safety in Texas."
The new rule, which goes into effect on Friday, will also allow poll watchers to observe activity at the drop off sites, CBS Dallas/Fort Worth reported.
"The State of Texas has a duty to voters to maintain the integrity of our elections," Abbott said at a press conference, the station reported. "As we work to preserve Texans' ability to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take extra care to strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state. These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting."
While the proclamation does little to counties like Tarrant and Denton, it has a significant impact on counties with larger populations. Harris County, which is home to Houston and is the third-largest county in the U.S, will lose 11 established drop-off sites, The Associated Press reported.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner criticized the decision. "Growing up, I was bused over 20 miles as a student in the first integrated class at Klein High School. Because of the Governor's decision today, I would now have to go even farther to drop off an absentee ballot and make sure my vote is counted," he said. Turner called the decision to reduce the number of sites "a direct attempt at voter suppression," and said, "We should be focused on making voting more accessible and stop trying to create obstacles and distractions with unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud."
In a press release, Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa called the decision a failed attempt to change voting rules "at the last minute." In a statement to CBS News, a Texas Democratic Party official confirmed that a lawsuit was in progress. The ACLU of Texas also strongly condemned the order in a statement, calling Abbott's decision "another thinly disguised attempt to stymie the vote."
Texas is one of the only states that has not expanded vote-by-mail during the coronavirus pandemic, despite Democratic attempts to expand mail voting access in the state. In order to be eligible for mail-in voting, you must be either 65 years or older, disabled, out of the county on Election Day and early voting period, or in jail but otherwise eligible.
Back in July, Abbott extended the early voting period by six days. Texas Republican Party Chair Allen West and other prominent Texas Republicans sued Abbott in September over the decision, and the case has yet to be decided by the Texas Supreme Court.
When Abbott expanded early voting in July, he said it was part of a strategy to "preserve Texans' ability to vote in a way that also mitigates the spread of the virus." Letting people deliver mail-in ballots by hand, he said, gave people "greater flexibility" and protected people from COVID-19.
Texas' new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are no longer on a downward trend, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Other states that normally require an excuse to vote by mail, like Kentucky, New York, and New Hampshire, are allowing voters to use coronavirus as an excuse. President Trump has repeatedly argued that expanding mail-in voting will lead to fraud, even though election experts say cases of fraud are incredibly rare.
So what does this mean for larger counties? Many constituents will have to travel long distances to drop off their mail-in ballots, which could have a disproportionate impact on low-income voters or voters of color. Harris County contains almost 25% of the state's Black residents. Lina Hidalgo, the Harris County Judge, tweeted, "Harris County is bigger than the state of Rhode Island, and we're supposed to have 1 site? This isn't security, it's suppression."
Local clerks have announced which sites will remain open. The deadline to request an absentee ballot in Texas is still October 23, and mail-in ballots must be postmarked by November 3 and received by 5 p.m. on November 4 in order to be counted for most voters.