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Texas governor’s limit on drop-off sites for mail-in ballots criticized as voter suppression

A sign outside a ballot drop-off site in Houston on Thursday. (Callaghan O’Hare/Reuters)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Thursday said each of the state’s counties could provide only one mail-in ballot drop-off location for the November election, a proclamation that quickly spurred criticism and a legal threat from Democrats and election officials.

The executive order, which amended a July 27 order by Abbott that expanded early voting and absentee ballot drop-offs, cites election security as the reason counties must close sites that were already collecting early ballots. Critics immediately seized on the news, threatening legal challenges and arguing the change does not prevent fraud but hurts populous cities that are Democratic strongholds. Texas Democrats called Abbott’s move “a blatant voter suppression tactic.”

“Republicans are on the verge of losing, so Governor Abbott is trying to adjust the rules last minute,” state Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. “Make no mistake, Democracy itself is on the ballot. Every Texan must get out and vote these cowards out!”

The Texas Democratic Party’s communications director, Abhi Rahman, speaking to The Washington Post, declined to comment on reports that it will file a lawsuit. A civil rights organization, the League of United Latin American Citizens, announced Thursday that it would soon file a lawsuit against Abbott, calling the order “the worst type of third world politics.” Republicans for the Rule of Law, a group of anti-Trump conservatives, is also interested in joining the battle against the order, the group confirmed to The Post.

“If, as it appears, Gov. Abbott is attempting to change the outcome of an election by changing the rules at this late date, he’s committed a brazen offense against fair elections,” Carson Putnam, the group’s chief of communications, wrote in a statement. “Republicans for the Rule of Law is happy to draw attention to this case, because it deserves scrutiny from the entire country — and very likely from the judiciary. But whether or not it’s legal, it’s bad politics and has the appearance of impropriety.”

The sites staffed by election officials were created to provide people a place to safely turn in their mail-in ballots, as trust in the U.S. Postal Service has faltered under Trump-appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. Texas narrowly limits absentee voting to only those who are 65 or older, are disabled, are in jail or will be outside the county during early voting and Election Day.

How to vote in Texas

In several Texas counties that have a population of more than 1 million, the order would close several satellite sites. Harris County, which includes Houston and has more than 4.7 million residents, is the state’s largest county and the third largest in the United States, according to the census. According to the Austin American-Statesman, Harris County has 12 ballot drop-off sites; Travis County, which includes Austin and has a population of 1.2 million, has four sites.

President Trump lost in both counties in 2016 to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Several local officials, including Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, said they were evaluating options to challenge the change. DeBeauvoir called the order “most unfortunate” in a media briefing Thursday.

“It was intended to be destructive, and it is,” she said. “This is a deliberate attempt to manipulate the election. If the governor was truly worried about this, he could have stopped this program more than a month ago, or contacted the urban counties that are all doing the same thing.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) said the change is unrelated to election security because the ballot drop sites require photo identification.

“Harris County is bigger than the state of Rhode Island, and we’re supposed to have 1 site?” she tweeted. “This isn’t security, it’s suppression.”

The move may also confuse those who vote by mail, because the satellite locations were already advertised, according to Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins.

“To force hundreds of thousands of seniors and voters with disabilities to use a single drop-off location in a county that stretches over nearly 2,000 square miles is prejudicial and dangerous,” Hollins wrote in a statement.

The move follows a similar step in Ohio, where Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) limited each county to one ballot drop box. A judge last month blocked that order, and LaRose and the Ohio Republican Party have appealed.

By contrast, Kenosha County, Wis., has 17 mail-in ballot drop boxes for a population of about 170,000, according to the Kenosha News.