Two civil rights groups and two Texas voters had asked a federal judge to require substantial changes to polling place procedures, including an across-the-board mask mandate and expanded curbside voting.
Continuing to fend off attempts to alter its voting processes, Texas has convinced a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit that sought sweeping changes to the state’s rules for in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. District Judge Jason Pulliam on Monday dismissed a legal challenge from Mi Familia Vota, the Texas NAACP and two Texas voters who claimed the state’s current polling place procedures — including rules for early voting, the likelihood of long lines and Gov. Greg Abbott‘s decision to not require voters to wear masks — would place an unconstitutional burden on voters while the novel coronavirus remains in circulation.
In his order, Pulliam noted the requests were not unreasonable and could “easily be implemented to ensure all citizens in the State of Texas feel safe and are provided the opportunity to cast their vote in the 2020 election.” But he ultimately decided the court lacked jurisdiction to order the changes requested — an authority, he wrote, left to the state.
“This Court is cognizant of the urgency of Plaintiffs’ concerns and does respect the importance of protecting all citizens’ right to vote,” Pulliam wrote. “Within its authority to do so, this Court firmly resolves to prevent any measure designed or disguised to deter this most important fundamental civil right. At the same time, the Court equally respects and must adhere to the Constitution’s distribution and separation of power.”
The long list of changes the plaintiffs sought included a month of early voting, an across-the-board mask mandate for anyone at a polling place, the opening of additional polling places, a prohibition on the closure of polling places scheduled to be open on election day and a suspension of rules that limit who can vote curbside without entering a polling place. Other requested changes were more ambiguous, such as asking the court to order that all polling places be sufficiently staffed to keep wait times to less than 20 minutes. The lawsuit named Abbott and Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs as defendants, but the suit targeted some decisions that are ultimately up to local officials.
The plaintiffs argued the changes were needed because the burdens brought on by an election during a pandemic would be particularly high for Black and Latino voters whose communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus.
“The Texas 2020 elections will put voters at risk of transmitting or being infected with the coronavirus,” the original lawsuit read. “But the risk will not be shared equally.”
Shortly after the lawsuit was filed in July, Abbott partially fulfilled one of the changes the plaintiffs had sought. Though he didn’t grant a full month of early voting, the governor did extend the early voting period for the November election by six days, citing continued challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Early voting for the Nov. 3 election will now begin Oct. 13 instead of Oct. 19. The end date remains Oct. 30.