Judge blocks Texas governor’s order closing remote ballot drop sites

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The state of Texas is appealing a federal judge’s ruling that overturned Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting absentee ballot drop-off sites to one per county.

In an order Friday night, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pitman said the “about-face” by Abbott threatened to disenfranchise disabled and elderly voters who would now have to travel longer distances to drop off their ballots. The judge also said postal service delays and changes created doubts about whether mailed ballots would arrive in time.

Analysts have said limiting large urban counties to one drop-off site could depress Democratic turnout in those strongholds while having little impact in more rural, conservative areas that lean toward the GOP.

Pitman’s 46-page ruling issuing a preliminary injunction at the request of civil rights groups did not speculate on why Abbott mandated the closure of the remote drop-off sites, but the judge clearly did not buy the state’s claims that allowing multiple locations presented any threat to the integrity of the Nov. 3 election.

“The State’s proffered reason of ballot security is a pretext,” Pitman wrote. “The Court finds that the October 1 Order does not promote ballot security.”

Pitman noted the Supreme Court has repeatedly signaled that, because of the potential for voter confusion, federal courts should rarely grant relief that alters voting procedures in the weeks leading up to Election Day.

But the judge said Abbott was the one disrupting the status quo and said his actions were most likely to cause confusion.

“The October 1 Order is the true source of confusion and disparate treatment among voters,” Pitman wrote.

“Governor Abbott’s unilateral decision to reverse his July 27 Order after officials already began sending out absentee ballots and just days before the start of early voting in Texas has caused voter confusion,” the judge added. “It is apparent that closing ballot return centers at the last minute would cause confusion, especially when those centers were deemed safe, authorized, and, in fact, advertised as a convenient option just months ago.”

Within hours of Pitman’s ruling, Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs appealed to the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Lawyers from the Texas attorney general’s office also urged Pitman to abstain from taking action in the case because of parallel state court lawsuit challenging Abbott’s move. But the judge said the urgency of the issue made it unwise to wait for the state court to act.

“The need for adjudication of Plaintiffs’ claims is immediate; any delay risks irreparable violation of the a right that the Supreme Court has called ‘the essence of a democratic society,’” wrote Pitman.

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