Texas Supreme Court: Harris County cannot send mail ballot applications to all registered voters

HOUSTON – The Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday reversed earlier decisions supporting Harris County’s plan to mail unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters, most of whom do not qualify to vote by mail.

How did we get here?

On Aug. 25, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins tweeted his plan to mail an application for a mail-in ballot to each of the county’s more than 2 million registered voters.

Two days later, the Texas Secretary of State threatened to sue Harris County if it did not “immediately halt” its plan. The state sued on Aug. 31.

On Sept. 11, a state district judge ruled in favor of Hollins and his plan, writing that the “Election Code is silent” on the issue of how voters obtain mail-in ballot applications. The decision was upheld by a higher court of appeals a week later.

But on Wednesday, the Texas Supreme Court concluded: “[T]he Election Code does not authorize a … clerk to send an application to vote by mail to a voter who has not requested one, and … doing so results in irreparable injury to the State.”

How did Chris Hollins respond?

His office released a statement titled “Texas Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Voter Suppression" condemning the decision.

“It is disappointing that the Court has sided with political forces seeking to limit voter access this November,” Hollins said in the statement. “Placing limitations on non-partisan outreach that educates citizens about their Constitutional right to vote should not be acceptable in a democracy.”

What does the law say?

Texas is one of only a handful of states that do not allow just anyone to vote by mail. You have to be over 65 by Election Day, in jail, “disabled,” or out of the county during early voting and on election day.

Disabled includes having a physical condition that “creates a likelihood of injury to their health if they vote in person.”

The Texas Supreme Court said the Election Code does not grant a county clerk the authority to send unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to voters, and that such authority is not implied either.

“Because no other elective official in Texas is doing or has ever done what the clerk proposes, his plan threatens to undermine the statutorily required uniform operation of election laws across the state,” the state Supreme Court opinion said.

Political Scientists Mark Jones

“I wasn’t surprised for two reasons,” Rice University Political Science fellow Mark Jones said. “We have a Republican Supreme Court, and Chris Hollins was probably crossing the legal line a little bit by mailing out these ballots to people who overwhelmingly would not have been eligible to use absentee ballots in Texas this year.”

“This is a case where I think (Hollins) did cross the line in the sense that he was doing something that was not provided for in the election law, and could lead to confusion among people who, through no fault of their own, could commit a crime” by applying for a mail-in ballot they did not qualify to use.

Jones said whether or not Texas should allow anyone to vote by mail is a valid, but separate question.

“The reality is our election law does not provide for no-excuse absentee voting and it does not provide for the county clerk being able to send applications to people who by and large, 95% of them, would not qualify to be able to vote absentee,” Jones said.