TX judge orders injunction on part of new election law as early voting approaches

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(Video Credit: KHOU 11)

A judge in San Antonio, Texas halted part of a new state election law Friday night that would criminalize soliciting mail-in ballots, claiming it was “probably” unconstitutional and violated the 1st and 14th Amendments, specifically free speech.

Federal District Judge Xavier Rodriguez ruled that Harris County officials have the right to inform voters about mail-in voting. His decision coincidentally comes just three days before early voting is set to begin for the March 1 statewide primary in the state’s most populous county.

Following a tense three-hour hearing earlier in the day, Rodriguez temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the rule against Harris County’s election administrator until the rest of the lawsuit plays out.

SB 1 took effect in December, causing an outcry from leftist Democrats. The Dallas Morning News reported that the bill provision was in response to a Harris County official who attempted to mail out absentee voter applications to all voters in the county.

Isabel Longoria, an elections administrator in Harris County and volunteer deputy registrar Cathy Morgan from Travis and Williamson counties, were the ones who filed the lawsuit.

Longoria testified that the threat of a $10,000 fine or going to jail made her feel she couldn’t speak to voters freely about the right to request a mail-in ballot.

“I stop mid-sentence sometimes at these town halls and say ‘The law prevents me from saying much more. If you have a question good luck and call us,’” she stated in court.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office took the stance that the state could regulate what county officials are allowed to communicate to voters concerning absentee ballots. The judge called that argument “unavailing” since the plaintiffs aren’t state employees. The state is expected to quickly appeal the ruling.

“The State’s assertion that it is entitled to regulate Longoria and Morgan’s official communications as their employer is wholly unavailing,” Rodriguez remarked.

“It has a chilling effect,” Rodriguez stated while questioning a state attorney Friday morning. “They don’t know when they’re going to run afoul of this vague [law].”

State attorneys contended that the law did not apply to volunteers like Morgan and argued the government can prohibit interactions between local election officials and voters without running afoul of the First Amendment.

The lawyers also repeatedly argued that Longoria and Morgan could not prove they were facing an explicit threat of prosecution to justify the preliminary injunction. Under Senate Bill 1, officials who violate the prohibition on soliciting mail-in ballots face a state jail felony, which can be punishable by a minimum of 180 days in jail and fines up to $10,000.

Sean Morales-Doyle, an attorney for the plaintiffs, countered that an explicit threat of prosecution was not necessary because laws are also created to deter specific actions.

“The law is on the books for that purpose,” proclaimed Morales-Doyle, who is an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice.

The remainder of the law will stay in effect. However, the U.S. Department of Justice is also suing Texas over another portion of the bill that requires identification for mail-in ballots and in regards to access for voters with disabilities.

The state of Texas does not have no-excuse absentee voting. Individuals eligible include those over 65, the sick, those that are disabled, or women who expect to give birth within three weeks of Election Day. It also includes voters out of the county or in jail during early voting and on Election Day, according to Fox News.

The voting law is what prompted Democrats to flee Austin last summer in an attempt to derail it and pressure Congress to pass new voting protections. Neither effort was successful.


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