Appeals court blocks order that would have expanded vote-by-mail amid pandemic in Texas


A federal appeals court in Texas on Thursday blocked a lower court ruling that would have allowed people to mail in their ballots to avoid being exposed to the coronavirus.

Thursday’s ruling by the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals stalls a ruling that would have let Texas voters request mail-in ballots based on fear that a lack of immunity to Covid-19 would put them at risk if they voted in person.

District Judge Fred Biery had issued a decision in May that expanded mail-in voting by allowing the state’s “disability” election provision to apply to all registered voters under age 65, who currently have to provide excuses when applying for absentee ballots.

Texas’ election code defines “disability” as “a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.”

Texas is in the final weeks before a primary runoff election on July 14, with July 2 the last day to apply for mail-in ballots.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican who has argued that the expanded application of “disability” could lead to voter fraud, applauded Thursday’s unanimous ruling.

“Allowing universal  mail-in ballots, which are particularly vulnerable to fraud, would only lead to greater election fraud and disenfranchise lawful voters. The unanimous Fifth Circuit ruling puts a stop to this blatant violation of Texas law,” he said.

In both 2016 and 2018, approximately 25% of US voters cast ballots by mail, which includes the handful of states that conduct elections entirely by mail and traditional absentee ballots.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, absentee or mailed ballots in several ways “are as secure or more secure than traditional methods of voting.”

This is another in a series of victories for Paxton, who last month was granted a temporary stay in the case. The Texas Supreme Court last week also ruled against expanded vote-by-mail access in a separate but similar state case.

The Texas Democratic Party, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, blasted Thursday’s ruling, saying people shouldn’t have to choose between their health and their right to vote.

“Voters who are rightfully worried about the safety of in-person voting should have the option to vote by mail. The Constitution prohibits divvying up our rights by our age, gender, or race — and the Fifth Circuit decision of today would allow voters of a certain age different voting rights than the rest of us,” party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.

Hinojosa noted that the case might need “direction from the United States Supreme Court.”

Democrats have largely pushed for additional access to mail-in voting as Americans are increasingly nervous about going to the polls in person during the pandemic and states that held in-person primaries during the initial weeks of the outbreak saw drastically reduced voter turnout. Republicans, however, including President Donald Trump, have resisted those calls, citing fears over voter fraud.

Though a majority of Americans support voting by mail as a socially distanced solution for elections this fall, Trump has doubled down on his penchant for making false claims about voter fraud in the US.

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