Houston Republicans sue to limit in-person and absentee voting options in Harris County

Access to absentee ballots has proved a major point of contention ahead of the Nov. 3 election. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

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A litigious conservative activist in Houston, the Harris County Republican party and a number of Republican officials and candidates are asking the Texas Supreme Court to limit in-person and absentee voting options for Harris County voters during the pandemic.

The county, the state’s most populous and a major Democratic stronghold, on Monday began letting voters drop off absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 general election at 11 annexes. In line with a directive from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, the county also intends to begin in-person early voting Oct. 13.

Prominent activist Steve Hotze, as well as Wendell Champion, a Republican candidate for Congress, Sharon Hemphill, a Republican candidate for judge, and the local GOP chairman, are suing to stop that, arguing Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is overreaching the bounds of state election law. They’re asking the state’s highest civil court to order Harris County to not begin early voting until Oct. 19 — the date set by state law which Abbott extended by executive order citing safety concerns — and not accept absentee ballots delivered in person until Nov. 3.

A longtime culture warrior on the right, Hotze has gone to court a number of times to challenge Abbott, Hollins and other elected officials over coronavirus-related restrictions — and lately over election procedures — with minimal success so far. An opponent of same-sex marriage, Hotze was a key figure in the Legislature’s 2017 fight over a “bathroom bill” that would have limited transgender Texans’ access to public facilities. He called Abbott’s staff earlier this year to ask that law enforcement “shoot to kill” rioters protesting after the police killing of George Floyd.

The new case comes less than a week after Hotze, along with a number of other top Republicans, challenged the governor for extending early voting in response to ongoing health concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. That case is pending before the Texas Supreme Court.

The conservative plaintiffs also argue that state law does not allow Hollins to permit voters to drop off their ballots at the 11 sites, a strategy they claim “creates an opportunity ripe for fraud.”

According to the Harris County clerk’s website, voters who complete absentee ballots may drop them off at any of 11 locations during specified hours, including 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the early voting period and on Election Day. Voters can deliver only their own ballots in person, and when they do they must present identification.

Hollins’ office did not immediately return a request for comment.

Republicans across the country, including leaders in Texas, have sought to cast doubt on the security of absentee ballots — skepticism experts say is not merited. There are documented cases of voter fraud in Texas, but with absentee ballots as overall, it is rare.

Texas is one of just a few states that has not allowed for no-excuse absentee ballots during the pandemic. Texans can vote by mail only if they are over 65, out of their home county, confined in jail or disabled. But the question of who qualifies as disabled has become politicized and intensely litigated as the political parties fight for advantage in an election that’s expected to be competitive in Texas. The Trump campaign has encouraged its voters to request absentee ballots, even as the president claims without evidence that it will lead to fraud.

The legal filing also includes allegations, without specific evidence, that a number of prominent Democrats in the Houston area are engaged in “ballot harvesting.” Quoting two brief affidavits from two men who say they are current private investigators and former law enforcement officials, the Republican plaintiffs accuse a host of local Democratic operatives, including elected officials, of harvesting votes from the homeless and elderly. The filing provides no evidence to support these claims beyond hearsay claims from unnamed “witnesses.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Jared Woodfill, did not respond to a request to make the two men — who are referred to as “investigators” throughout the filing — available for interviews about their methods or findings.

State Sen. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat who is accused of the vote harvesting scheme, called the allegations false and ludicrous, noting he has never met either of the two men who claim to have inside knowledge of the alleged plot.

Miles said he has always encouraged mail-in voting, especially for voters who are senior citizens, but has never and would never engage in ballot harvesting or any efforts to collect absentee ballots. The allegation is “Republican opposition work,” he said.

“I don’t do that, I don’t have a team that does that, and I’ve never had somebody else’s mail ballot in my hands,” Miles said.