AUSTIN — A federal judge in San Antonio has ordered anyone who enters or works at a polling location in Texas to wear a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
U.S. District Judge Jason Pulliam on Tuesday struck down a section of Gov. Greg Abbott’s July 2 executive order that exempted people from wearing masks at polling locations, saying it violated the Voting Rights Act “because it creates a discriminatory burden on Black and Latino voters,” who have been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic.
Pulliam is the first Black judge to serve in the federal court in San Antonio.
“These minority groups experience a greater risk of contraction and severity of the disease and this discriminatory effect can be eliminated, or at least mitigated if all people wear masks at polling sites,” Pulliam, an appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote in his order.
The state appealed the decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Pulliam’s decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed by the voting organizations Mi Familia Vota and the Texas NAACP, as well as two voters. They argued that the pandemic required the state to take more drastic action to make voting safe for Texans, including extending early voting to one month, opening additional polling places, and suspending rules governing who can vote at the curb instead of entering an election site.
Pulliam had tossed out the suit in September, saying his court had no power to grant the relief the plaintiffs sought. But earlier this month, the 5th Circuit sent the case back to him, saying he should determine whether the exemption on masks at polling places violated the Voting Rights Act and whether his court could remedy the issue.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office has argued that other states are not requiring masks at polling locations. Its lawyers have also cited record-breaking turnout in the state during an extended early voting period.
As of Wednesday morning, 8.1 million people had voted in the state, with three days of early voting remaining and Election Day on Tuesday. That turnout has already exceeded the total turnout for the 2012 presidential race.
With such voter turnout, the state may reach the 2018 turnout of 8.37 million voters before the end of early voting on Friday. The current record turnout in the state is 8,969,226, in 2016.
Several North Texas counties had already exceeded their early voting totals from 2016. As of Wednesday, Dallas County was about 102,000 short of surpassing its total turnout record of 770,000 in 2016.
Collin County, which has become a major battleground, has passed its 2016 total turnout of 366,483. By 3 p.m. Wednesday, the county had received 398,084 votes, including mail ballots. That amounted to 61% of all registered voters, which led the state.
Harris County, the most populous county in the state, was within 200,000 of its turnout record of 1.38 million set four years ago.
In Central Texas, Travis County surpassed its 2016 total of 477,588 on Wednesday. Around noon, the county was up to 486,206.
But some remained worried about the election process during a pandemic.
The Texas Democratic Party urged voters who had requested mail ballots but not received them to vote in person as quickly as possible.
Casting a ballot in person after requesting a mail ballot requires people to cancel their request for a mail ballot. To do so, they sign an affidavit attesting that they did not receive the ballot; then they are allowed to cast a provisional ballot, which will count as long as no mail ballot from them is received.
Those who have their mail ballot and want to cast it in person can deliver it to their early voting clerk’s office. A photo ID will be required to verify the voter’s identity.
For their part, a group of Republican lawmakers, candidates, and activists asked the Texas Supreme Court to reject about 100,000 ballots in Harris County that were cast through curbside voting. They argue that the county ignored very narrow requirements about who could vote by mail and allowed any eligible voter to vote at the curbside.
The Texas Supreme Court previously rejected a bid by the same petitioners to order Harris County to stop letting all eligible voters use curbside voting.