Texas shutdown of mail-in ballot drop-off sites hits diverse cities hardest

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Governor Greg Abbott’s decision to restrict drop boxes to one per county under pressure from his own party faces legal challenge

The NRG Stadium in Houston is now the sole drop-off location for mail-in ballots for Harris county’s 2.4 million registered voters.
The NRG Stadium in Houston is now the sole drop-off location for mail-in ballots for Harris county’s 2.4 million registered voters. Photograph: Sergio Flores/Getty Images

Governor Greg Abbott’s announcement of the closure of several mail-in ballot drop-off sites across Texas on Thursday imposed a limit of one to each county. The move came on the same day Travis county, which is largely composed of the state’s capital, Austin, had just opened four drop-off locations.

In July, Abbott had issued an executive order to ease voting restrictions due to the pandemic by extending the early voting period by six days. But after facing pressure from his own Republican party, Abbott now seems to be backtracking.

Large, populous counties such as Travis and Harris county will be disproportionately affected by this order. These counties includes Texas’s most diverse cities: Austin and Houston, respectively. Nine per cent of Travis county’s population are black and 33% are Hispanic. In Harris county, 20% of the population are black and 43% Hispanic.

Harris county

Harris county is the third most populous county in the country with more than 4.7 million residents. As of 2018, it has nearly 2.4 million registered voters. After Abbott’s new order, the vast county has gone from having 12 ballot drop-off sites to just one, located at the NRG Stadium in central Houston.

HC map

Harris County spans 1,777 square miles and is larger than Rhode Island. Residents in and around suburbs like Cypress, Tomball and Humble must now travel almost an hour one-way with moderate traffic to reach the single drop-off site. Those living in rural areas like Waller or Hockley will have even farther to travel.

RI map

Civil rights organizations in the state have banded together to take legal action against the governor, claiming his order “can cause ‘confusion’ and even undermine public confidence in the outcome of the election itself”.

Ralph Edelbach, a resident of Cypress, is 82 and disabled. He is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Edelbach originally planned on dropping off his ballot to a location 16 miles away from his home. He must now travel 72 miles into the city and back.

“When I saw there was an option to use mail outpost box options, I thought that was certainly something I wanted to consider doing,” Edelbach said. “Then I saw the governor’s proclamation. His attempt to suppress the vote is clear.”

Edelbach said he should not have to mail in his ballot, citing his distrust of the US Postal Service after the discovery of major mail slowdowns after the Trump appointee Louis DeJoy was appointed postmaster general in June.

“I’m 82 years old. I do not have to vote in person,” Edelbach said. “I do, in Texas, have the option of voting absentee and I’m exercising that right. There is no evidence that I’ve seen at all about any significant fraudulent voting going on anywhere.”

Ravi Doshi, senior voting rights counsel at the Campaign Legal Center (CLC), is an attorney in the case.

“We wouldn’t have filed this lawsuit if we didn’t think it had merit,” he said. “The election in Texas is under way. People are already voting. They made plans on how they would vote based on the rules that were already set, before the election started. To change these rules midstream and get rid of drop-boxes is to make it more difficult for people to be able to exercise their right to vote. That is plainly wrong and it should be stopped.”

The voter registration deadline in Texas is 5 October and early voting begins on 13 October. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot is 23 October. All mail-in ballots must be postmarked by 3 November and received by 5pm on 4 November.