Texas Governor Abbott has made voting in upcoming elections — both in-person and by mail-in ballot — easier and more accessible. Claims to the contrary are intellectually dishonest or plain lazy. Either way, they are falsehoods.
In an October 1, 2020, proclamation, Governor Abbott restricted in-person drop-off locations for mail ballots to a single early-voting clerk’s office in each county. The claims of voter suppression were immediate. The Texas Tribune argued that Governor Abbott’s actions bolstered “GOP efforts to restrict voting.” The Houston Chronicle agreed, calling it “voter suppression — plain and simple.” The national media played along too, with the New York Times reporting that Governor Abbott’s “decision to reduce options for voters to drop off their ballots comes as questions of voting rights, voter suppression and the integrity of election have emerged as major issues in the 2020 campaign.”
On Friday, Federal District Judge Robert Pitman issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of Abbot’s October 1 order. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed that injunction on Saturday, meaning that the October 1 order will be enforced.
The first-blush optics on this issue are not good, but none of the reporters took the time to read Governor Abbott’s orders or current law, the latter of which should be the baseline for measuring the governor’s actions.
Start with Chapters 85 and 86 of the Texas Election Code, which govern early voting by personal appearance and early voting by mail, respectively. Had the governor taken no action at all with respect to early voting, the period for early voting would be eleven days long. Governor Abbott’s July 27, 2020, proclamation extended that period to 17 days, giving Texans nearly a full week of extra days to vote in person. By any measure, that’s an increase in accessibility and ease of voting in person.
Had the governor taken no action with respect to mail-in ballots, they would have been governed by existing statute, which provides three methods for their return: by mail, carrier, or in-person delivery by the person who voted the ballot. Because mail-in ballots are intended to be returned by mail, there are requirements for in-person drop-off that largely resemble in-person voting. For example, the voter has to show proof of identification to ensure that the person handling the ballot is the person who voted the ballot. But most important in the context of the current controversy, the law unequivocally states that mail-in ballots presented in person may be delivered “to the early voting clerk’s office only while the polls are open on election day.”
If Governor Abbott had taken no action, the state would have maintained the status quo: Drop-offs would be limited to voting-clerk offices on one single day: Election Day. His July 27 proclamation expanded that period to days “prior to and including on election day.” There is no specific start date. Even an expansion covering only the early-voting period would have increased the number of days that a mail-in ballot may be dropped off in person from one to 20, but there is no such limitation. Governor Abbott’s order amounts to more than a 2,000 percent increase in days available for in-person drop-offs. That is not the action of someone attempting to suppress votes.
Local election officials in large jurisdictions such as Harris County and Travis County wanted Governor Abbott’s order to go further than it did. This is par for the course in Harris County, which at one point planned to send mail-in ballots to every registered voter in the county, whether it was legal for that person to vote by mail or not. (If you want to talk about voter suppression, imagine the confusion that would be caused by sending mail-in ballots to 2.5 million voters, a large majority of whom are not legally authorized to vote by mail.)
Governor Abbott’s October 1 proclamation clarified that his original order “merely increased the amount of time for an eligible voter to return a marked mail ballot in person to the early voting clerk’s office and did not suspend or otherwise affect the other applicable requirements.” Claims of voter suppression are willfully blind to the fact that this conversation is taking place only because Governor Abbott relaxed elections laws during a pandemic using his emergency powers. The fact that he has not relaxed them as much as some would like does not change the fact that he has made it easier to vote this cycle, not harder. He took these actions at considerable political expense. Not only have a host of interest groups sued him over these actions, but his own political party sued him as well. This no-win political situation could have been avoided by simply doing nothing. Governor Abbott took those arrows and made voting in the upcoming election easier.