Texas voters have to wear masks while voting despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s exemption, federal judge rules

Voters cast their ballots at the Performing Arts Center at Texas State University in San Marcos. (Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune)
Voters cast their ballots at the Performing Arts Center at Texas State University in San Marcos. (Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune)

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Texas voters should be required to wear face masks when casting ballots during the pandemic, a federal district judge ruled Tuesday, invalidating an exemption for polling places that Gov. Greg Abbott had included in his statewide mask mandate.

The governor’s mandate for Texans to cover their mouths and noses in public does not apply to polling places, an exclusion that has been challenged as discriminatory against Black and Latino voters who are more likely to be harmed by the coronavirus. Abbott has previously said he encourages voters to wear a face mask, but said he excluded polling places from his mandate to prevent people from being turned away from voting just because they don’t have a mask. Poll workers are also not required to wear masks.

In his temporary ruling, U.S. District Judge Jason Pulliam said the exemption “creates a discriminatory burden on Black and Latino voters.”

Abbott and Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs immediately sought an appeal at the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The argument for a mask mandate at the polls was first raised in a much broader lawsuit filed against Abbott and the Texas secretary of state in July by Mi Familia Vota, the Texas NAACP and two Texas voters. The plaintiffs also sought things like a month of early voting, the opening of additional polling places and a suspension of rules that limit who can vote curbside without entering a polling place.

Pulliam, based in San Antonio, had dismissed the lawsuit in September, Texas having convinced him that the sweeping changes sought to the state’s rules for in-person voting during the pandemic were outside of his jurisdiction as a federal judge. But earlier this month, with early voting already underway, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals punted the case back to Pulliam for him to again review the argument for an across-the-board mask mandate for anyone at a polling place.

The appeals court said that if Pulliam found that Abbott’s decision to not require masks at the polls violated the federal Voting Rights Act’s disallowance of discriminatory voting practices based on race, he would have jurisdiction to order changes.