Texas Rep. Ron Reynolds knows his District 27 constituents want to vote.
However, they also want to keep themselves safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is an ongoing legal battle about Texans’ right to submit absentee or mail-in ballots in upcoming elections, with some voters concerned about exposing themselves to the contagious upper-respiratory disease if they are required to vote in person. Only certain segments of the population can request ballots by mail, but Democrats and voting rights advocates are pushing for the expansion of mail-in voting during the pandemic.
“There is no good, justifiable reason to deny this ability for those who have a concern,” said Reynolds, a Democrat who represents much of Missouri City in the Texas House of Representatives.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, appealed a temporary injunction issued in April by a Travis County District Court judge that would allow any registered voter in Texas to apply for an absentee ballot based on a disability claim, because voting in person could pose a health risk for contracting COVID-19. A Houston appellate court ruled Thursday that the Travis County order could stand until the appeals process is complete, but on Friday the Texas Supreme Court sided with Paxton and stayed the temporary order.
So for now, at least, mail-in voting cannot be expanded to those who claim a disability because they have no immunity to the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. Under Texas’ election laws, ballots by mail can only be issued to voters who are 65 or older, have a sickness or disability, are out of their home county during early voting and Election Day or are incarcerated but eligible to vote.
“Unlawful expansion of mail-in voting, which is a special protection made available to Texans with actual disabilities, will only serve to undermine the security of our elections and to facilitate fraud,” Paxton said in a news release last week. “Fear of contracting COVID-19 does not amount to a sickness or physical condition as required by state law.”
Reynolds said limiting the number of voters who can requests ballots by mail will ultimately limit the number of people who vote.
“Voting is a fundamental right, and I believe many people will be disenfranchised without that ability (for mail-in voting). There’s no reason we can’t safely expand the absentee process,” he said. “I find it very disheartening that our attorney general would go against the overwhelming majority will of Texans.”
Some area residents have sided with Paxton in his fight against expanded absentee voting, claiming it would encourage voter fraud. Others, however, say such as expansion is not a problem and would serve as further protection against COVID-19.
As of Monday, Fort Bend County officials had reported 1,559 cases of COVID-19. The virus had also caused 40 deaths among county residents.
“Many people in Texas already vote by mail with extremely rare fraud,” LuAnn York wrote in response to a Facebook post by The Star. “Some states allow everyone the option to vote by mail with few issues. Certainly those who are high risk for COVID-19, but do not otherwise qualify, should be allowed to vote by mail.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a proclamation last week that expanded the early voting period for the July 14 runoff, originally scheduled for July 6-10. Citing a need to increase the number of days for early voting so election officials can implement social distancing and hygienic practices at polling places, Abbott moved up the start of early voting to June 29.
Reynolds said he has been a staunch supporter of expanded absentee voting even before the brunt of the pandemic hit. He also said Paxton’s argument is more political than anything else.
“This is a partisan argument, and in my opinion it’s designed to suppress the vote and make it more difficult to do so,” he said. “I hope the democratic process prevails (in the courts) and justice will be served so those who have a concern can vote.”