AUSTIN, Texas – Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asked Trump administration officials to rescind federal virus relief funding that Houston used to expand people’s voting options, according to a document revealed Tuesday.
In a May 21 letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Paxton accused officials in Harris County, which includes Houston, of misusing up to $12 million of the federal funding and violating state law with their plans to expand the use of mail-in ballots for the presidential election.
“We respectfully ask the department to scrutinize its award of CARES Act funding to Harris County in light of the county’s stated intent to use federal funding in violation of state law, and to the extent possible, seek return of any amounts improperly spent on efforts to promote illegal mail-in voting,” Paxton wrote. “Without implementing adequate protections against unlawful abuse of mail-in ballots, the department could be cast in a position of involuntarily facilitating election fraud.”
The Washington-based Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics obtained and published the letter, in what has become the latest example of the Republican attorney general's efforts to keep in place Texas' strict rules requiring most voters to cast ballots in-person, even during a pandemic.
Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said the way the money was used helped protect elections workers and voters from the coronavirus. Some people used a drive-thru option to vote, others stood in socially distanced lines, and some polling places were open for 24 hours.
“Just as intended, voters had more options to vote without jeopardizing their health," Longoria said in a statement. "We invested in public safety that resulted in record voter turnout. We’re proud to show Ken Paxton what it looks like to invest in public safety rather than politicized letters.”
Paxton’s office and the Department of Treasury did not respond to requests for comment.
Texas is one of only five states that did not broaden the use of voting by mail for the November election. State and federal courts blocked efforts by officials in Houston and other Democratic-run Texas cities to offer mail-in voting applications to anyone who feared contracting COVID-19 if they voted in person.
Paxton and other Republican officials have echoed President Donald Trump's baseless claims that widespread election fraud altered the results of the presidential election, which Democrat Joe Biden won by a fairly large margin. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a lawsuit led by Paxton to invalidate Electoral College votes from several states that voted for Biden, which would have given the election to Trump.
Some have speculated that Paxton is angling for a preemptive pardon in the waning weeks of Trump’s administration.
Paxton is being investigated by the FBI after eight senior officials in his office accused him of bribery, abuse of office and other offenses they said he committed in helping a wealthy donor try to fend off his own federal investigation. Paxton has broadly denied wrongdoing.
Texas’ top law enforcement official also has spent most of his five years in office under a state felony indictment for securities fraud. Paxton pleaded not guilty in that case, which has been stalled for years by legal challenges.
Acacia Coronado is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.