Officials seek to block new Texas law criminalizing mail-in voter outreach

Election officials say a provision in Texas’ new election law, which took effect Dec. 2, violates their First Amendment rights.

A poll worker stamps a ballot before depositing it in a secure box at a ballot drop off location on October 13, 2020 in Austin, Texas.

Sergio Flores/Getty Images

Two election officials have asked a federal court to block a Texas law that makes it a crime to distribute mail-in ballot applications. The provision is one of several included in Senate Bill 1, which Governor Greg Abbott signed into law Sept. 1 during a special legislative session, and carries a jail term of six months to two years and a fine of up to $10,000.

Isabel Longoria, a Harris County election administrator, and Cathy Morgan, an assistant clerk for Williamson and Travis counties, argued in a 24-page motion for a preliminary injunction filed Tuesday, that the provision — which makes illegal for local election officials to proactively distribute absentee ballot applications unless voters request it — violates their right to free speech and hinders their ability to encourage Texans to vote legally.

The motion was the next step in a federal lawsuit filed by Longoria and Morgan on Dec. 10, according to the Austin American-Statesman. “There is no legitimate purpose in suppressing speech in order to suppress the lawful exercise of the right to vote,” the filing states.

Under pandemic conditions in 2021, Harris County attempted to send nominations to 2.4 million registered voters with instructions on how to determine their eligibility. The effort was ultimately blocked by the Texas Supreme Court. Abbott and other SB 1 GOP supporters have argued that the law is necessary to prevent voter fraud and that mail-in ballots are less secure than in-person voting.

The law, which also bans 24-hour and drive-thru voting, and sets new identification requirements for mail-in ballots, has been challenged by civil rights groups as well as the Department of Justice. Justice in November.

In their filing, Longoria and Morgan are asking U.S. District Judge Fred Biery of San Antonio to rule no on the law by Feb. 14, four days before the deadline to request a mail-in ballot request for the primary election in 2022 in Texas. “Longoria planned to deliver speeches and hold voter outreach events, but was unable to do so for fear of criminal prosecution and civil penalties,” the filing said, adding that it also prevented Longoria from promoting postal voting through flyers and social media.

Morgan, who previously manned a voter registration booth near the University of Texas at Austin campus, “can no longer proactively suggest that eligible but oblivious voters request a mail-in ballot request…as she has done in the past and wishes to do so currently,” the filing says.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has yet to file a response to the lawsuit, although his office opposes the injunction request, the statesman said.

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