Texas Elections

Photos by Tim Monzingo/The Daily Sentinel

Nacogdoches County Election Administrator Todd Stallings responds to emails inside the election office on Sept. 22. Challenges to election laws have delayed the rollout of mail-in ballots, but those ballots were finally sent out Wednesday.

Straight-ticket voting won’t be making a comeback this year in Texas, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday evening, so the long-delayed rollout of mail-in ballots has finally begun.

“Our mail ballots are on the way to voters,” Nacogdoches County Elections Administrator Todd Stallings said.

Around 2,400 mail-in ballots were set to go out Saturday but Stallings delayed sending them after learning late Friday that a federal judge had reversed a 2017 law passed by the Texas Legislature to end straight-ticket voting.

The last day to register to vote is Oct. 5 and the elections office will remain open until 7 p.m. that day. Voters have until Oct. 23 to register for mail ballots.

“Now we’re at a point where the same day you apply (for a mail ballot) we’ll probably be sending out your ballot the same day,” Stallings said.

Mail-in ballots were delayed for the second time this election cycle after a federal judge late last week reversed a 2017 decision by the Texas Legislature to end straight-ticket voting. U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo wrote in her opinion that ending straight-ticket voting would sow chaos by ending a familiar and popular voting practice before a high-stakes, high-turnout election during a pandemic.

Nacogdoches County set a record in the number of voters signed up for mail ballots, and voter rolls have exceeded 38,000 — also a record.

A three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based appeals court overturned Marmolejo’s decision late Wednesday, ruling that the law ending the one-punch option should go into effect even as voters and election administrators contend with the coronavirus pandemic, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s “emphasis that courts should not alter election rules on the eve of an election.”

“The Texas Legislature passed HB 25 in 2017, and state election officials have planned for this election accordingly. The state election machinery is already well in motion,” the judges wrote. Upholding the law and eliminating straight-ticket voting, they wrote, “will minimize confusion among both voters and trained election officials.”

Texas Democrats fiercely opposed ending one-punch voting when it was considered years ago at the Capitol, and it passed largely on party lines. Straight-ticket voting was a popular option among voters of both parties; in 2018, two-thirds of Texas voters used that option. But Democrats fear the loss of the one-punch option will be felt most heavily among their voters, particularly voters of color in large urban counties, where the ballots can stretch on with dozens of local judicial races.

A federal decision in the Democrats’ favor could have led to reprinting all ballots or only adding the straight-ticket option to in-person ballots, Stallings said. Either option would have required major adjustments,.

Mail ballots were previously delayed due to a Texas Supreme Court decision to allow several Green Party candidates to be reinstated on the ticket. Democrats had previously sued to remove them. That decision caused some ballots to be re-sent to overseas and military voters and another change might have spurred a second ballot correction, Stallings said.

Early voting in Texas is set to begin Oct. 13, but even that date is being challenged.

In July, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott added six days to the early voting period, moving the start date up to Oct. 13 from Oct. 19 because of the pandemic. A group of fellow Republicans, including Texas GOP Chair Allen West and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, are suing, saying the governor overstepped his authority.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton this week filed a brief in support of Abbott, arguing that expanding early voting has caused no harm and that Abbott’s actions are covered under the state’s disaster act.

“It sets parameters for what constitutes a disaster, provides a standard for how the governor is to declare one, places limits on his emergency powers, and specifies when the disaster ends,” Paxton’s brief explains.

The Texas tribune Contributed to this report.

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