State Says Harris County Can’t Send Mail-In Ballot Applications To All Voters, But Unclear What Law Prevents It

Most Texas voters aren’t eligible to cast a ballot by mail, but anyone can request an application.

By Jill Ament, Kristen Cabrera & Shelly BrisbinAugust 31, 2020 11:38 am, ,

On Friday, a letter from the Texas secretary of state’s office threatened legal action if the Harris County clerk – the official in charge of elections there – moves forward with plans to mail absentee voter applications to every voter in the county.  

Zach Despart is covering this story for the Houston Chronicle. He told Texas Standard that applications for absentee ballots would have gone to 2.4 million Harris County voters, whether or not they are eligible to vote by mail.

To receive an absentee ballot, an eligible voter must fill out and return an application to their county elections office. Voters who are 65 or older, are in prison or jail but otherwise eligible to vote, those who will be outside the county on Election Day and those who have a disability are eligible to vote by mail in Texas. Despart said the Texas Democratic Party and activist groups pushed for an expansion of what constitutes a disability, to include fear of contracting COVID-19. The Texas Supreme Court ruled earlier this summer that being afraid to vote in person because of the virus does not, on its own, constitute a disability under Texas law.

“Because county clerks and elections administrators don’t have a duty to vet the applications that they receive, ultimately what this comes down to is a voter has to decide for his or herself if they qualify for a disability for a mail-in ballot,” Despart said.

The letter from the secretary of state’s office ordered Harris County not to send absentee ballot applications to all voters. But Despart said it’s unclear whether the state has the authority to do so.

“It is unclear what law or statute Harris County is breaking by sending mail ballot [applications] to everyone,” Despart said.

Despart said that neither the election experts he contacted nor the Texas attorney general’s office cited specific law that Harris County would be violating by sending the applications to all voters.

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