Opinion

The confounding commotion around voting in Texas

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The Texas elections are looming, and the courts are full of cases about the state’s laws on early voting, voting by mail, straight-ticket voting, voting locations, you name it.

Election Day is only a month away, but the voting laws in effect today might not be the voting laws in effect when you vote. That’s not very relaxing. That said, most judges are allergic to rulings that affect elections in progress, so the time for making big changes to Texas election and voting laws is drawing to a close.

Voting starts — probably — in less than two weeks, on Oct. 13. Monday, Oct. 5, is the last day to register to vote. Absentee ballots from some counties are already in the mail. Election Day is Nov. 3.

The courts should be wrapping things up. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued what might be the final say on straight-ticket voting this week. In 2017, the Texas Legislature voted to kill one-punch voting — where you can vote for all of a party’s candidates with one punch instead of working your way down the ballot. Republicans wanted to kill it; Democrats, who believe it helps their down-ballot candidates, wanted to keep it. That law takes effect this year, and November will be the first time that popular way of voting is missing from Texas ballots.

Democrats sued to reinstate it, won in trial court and lost at the appellate court. One point of interest to a judge with an eye on election disruption is that some absentee ballots have already been mailed to voters — without a straight-ticket option.

You can also find reasons to believe that the legal tangles will continue through or even beyond Nov. 3.

The governor’s pandemic-driven order to add six extra days for early voting — the better to extend opportunities and socially distance voters in the face of the coronavirus — is being challenged in the courts by some of his fellow Republicans. That group includes the chair of the state GOP, the state’s Republican agriculture commissioner, a number of Republican legislators and some conservative activists.

They don’t think the extra time is needed, or that the governor has the power to extend early voting without the Legislature — a complaint that also figures in their challenges to business closings and other pandemic restrictions issued from the governor’s office.

Politics aside, their lawsuit would shorten the early voting period to its original size, moving the start of early voting to Oct. 19 from Oct. 13 — the date everybody in politics has been advertising as the first day to vote. The courts might side with the challengers, but the longer they take, the more disruptive their ruling will be.

The governor directly entered the fray Thursday with another executive order — one his fellow Republicans agree with — limiting the number of drop-off locations for absentee ballots to one per county and allowing “poll watchers the opportunity to observe any activity conducted at the early voting clerk’s office location related to the in-person delivery of a marked mail ballot ….”

Anyone voting absentee because of concerns about coronavirus infection should know that the governor’s COVID-19 mask orders reintroduce the risks a mail-in ballot is supposed to avoid. The mask requirements don’t apply to “any person who is voting, assisting a voter, serving as a poll watcher, or actively administering an election, but wearing a face mask is strongly encouraged.”

Shutting down all but one location is a strike at the state’s biggest and sometimes most Democratic counties. Harris and Travis, for instance, were already allowing voters to drop off absentee ballots at several locations. Abbott’s order said ballots collected in those locations through Friday, Oct. 2, would be counted. After that, the counties have to shut them down. Keeping with the general theme of courts and elections and voting, Travis County said it will sue to stop the governor’s order, just hours after he signed it.

The governor had already extended the delivery times for voters, saying they could bring in absentee ballots before Nov. 3 (along with their voter identifications), and again blaming the pandemic for the change. The new order raised official Democratic hackles and might well be another reason to keep your eyes on the courts.

This is not a full inventory of the Texas voting laws being considered and reconsidered by the courts. But the disputes are already threatening to disrupt this fraught election year and an anxious electorate. Some Texans have already voted absentee, either by mail or at one of those soon-to-be less numerous drop-off sites. Maybe the judges will sort out all of the litigation — and the litigants — before most of us vote. Maybe they won’t, or can’t.

It’s noisy. Keep your head down and vote anyway.

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