Judge temporarily blocks state ban on election officials soliciting mail-in ballots

A federal judge ruled the Texas law prohibiting election officials from encouraging voters to request mail-in ballots is likely unconstitutional.

By Rhonda FanningFebruary 14, 2022 1:28 pm,

A federal judge had temporarily blocked the portion of Texas’ Senate Bill 1 election law that prevents local election officials from offering mail-in ballot applications to eligible voters. Federal District Judge Xavier Rodriguez ruled on Friday that the ban likely violates the First Amendment.

The state is specifically prevented from enforcing the mail-in ballot restriction on Harris County election officials until the entire lawsuit is resolved. This preliminary injunction is the first legal ruling against the election restrictions passed by Texas lawmakers in 2021.

February 18 is the last day counties can receive mail-in ballot applications for the March 1 primary elections. You can obtain an application to vote by mail or check the status of your mail-in ballot at votetexas.gov.

Isabel Longoria, the elections administrator for Harris County, spoke to Texas Standard about the ruling and voting in the statewide-primary elections. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity. 

Texas Standard: A federal Judge in San Antonio ruled in your favor on a lawsuit you and a volunteer deputy registrar brought against the state of Texas pertaining to an aspect of SB 1. Can you explain what that ruling means to voters? 

Isabel Longoria: It’s been a huge sigh of relief for me since Friday evening. The proposed election bill, SB 1, covered a couple of things regarding mail ballots. First, that I — as an election official — cannot directly send you a mail ballot anymore unless you call and request one. The second thing it said was even in my professional or personal time I cannot solicit a mail ballot application. Before Friday, I was not even able to ask you if you would want a mail ballot application or ask you if you would want us to send your mail ballot application.

So you challenged on the basis of the First Amendment?

Right. It prohibited my free speech and, quite frankly, my ability to do my duty — which is to help voters. As of Friday, we’ve got a preliminary injunction, so I can actually say this on air, please, if you’re eligible to vote by mail, you still have time until February 18th. And even with all these law changes, we know for some folks it might be your only way to vote in these primaries.

You said in your testimony, “When it comes to voting by mail, I have to be very careful with my words.” You said that you feared possible civil and criminal penalties, what were you facing? 

Yeah, if I say something like, ‘Hey, are you eligible to vote for my mail? Would you like an application? Please visit us to get one.’ I could face six months in prison. I could be fired from my job — a pretty hefty fine. I can talk about voter registration, I can talk about voting in person, I can talk about anything on elections, I could even tell you not to vote by mail. But I can’t say, ‘Please vote by mail if you’re eligible to do so. If it’s the only way you can vote, please ask us for a mail ballot application.’ It’s an odd sense to be able to come up right up to that line and not be able to help people vote.

Friday’s decision doesn’t resolve the underlying lawsuit. What it does do is free you up to encourage people to register to vote by mail specifically or what exactly?

So we’re in a preliminary injunction which allows me to, with a reasonable risk, ask people ahead of February 18 if they’d like a mail ballot application. February 18 is the deadline. My team is now looking at social media campaigns, perhaps sending out letters or emails to folks not only for the primary but for their annual mail-in ballots – which you have to renew every January.

There are other, ongoing legal challenges to SB 1. This primary is the first statewide election in Texas since that law passed. What do you see as the implications of the law in Harris County? 

We in Harris County have the ability, we have the resources, we have a great county attorney to go and challenge these laws. But some of our counties, surrounding us and across Texas, that are not as big don’t have the legal resources or even the people power to do this. All eyes are on Harris County to really challenge the provisions that prevent U.S. election officials from doing our duty – which is at the bare minimum to help people vote in Texas. For Harris County voters, it allows us to keep pursuing my passion of increasing innovations, making things like drive-through voting – which is now illegal – or reconsidering things like 24-hour voting — which is now illegal. Pivoting and saying, ‘Well, what else can we do to help voters vote as more and more options are taken away from us as election officials?’ And we can only do that by challenging the questions that have been put in front of us.

We’ve been hearing reports of large numbers of mail-in ballots being returned to voters  for lacking newly required ID information. Can you explain, and how many of these ballots have been sent back in Harris County?

At least in urban counties, 11% of mail-in ballot applications are being rejected for ID issues alone. There’s another couple percentage points that are rejected because people forget to mark which election they’d like a mail ballot for or forget to put their zip code — very innocent mistakes we see every election. But 11% are being rejected for ID issues alone, which are directly a provision of the new SB1 election law. Those ID rejections alone are almost three times more than all the mail-in ballot rejections we saw in 2018.

What do you want Texans who plan to vote to know today?

Come vote. You can vote in-person from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in Harris County and in most counties across Texas. In Harris County we welcome you at over 90 early voting locations. At the end of the day, my job is to jump through hoops so you don’t have to. So, if you come and vote if you send in your application, you can call our office, we can help walk you through every step of the way. In Harris County, we have the resources to do it, so join us at https://www.harrisvotes.com for more information and bring your date to come vote.

If you live outside Harris County, get information about your voter registration status, mail-in ballot or in-person polling place options at your county’s election web site or statewide at votetexas.gov.

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