Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan files amicus brief seeking expedited ruling by U.S. Supreme Court to address Vote by Mail issue in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic
ABOVE: Supreme Court of the United States (Getty Images)
This past Monday, July 20th, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan filed an amicus brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the Vote by Mail issue and to provide an expedited ruling on the matter, as the November general election is swiftly approaching.
Ryan filed the friend of the court brief on behalf of Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins and in conjunction with the election administrators in Cameron, Fort Bend and Travis Counties.
“These elections administrators face impossible circumstances from the COVID-19 pandemic and the legal bind in which the State of Texas, the Secretary of State and the Texas Supreme Court have placed them,” said County Attorney Ryan. “Without the Supreme Court enforcing the Twenty-Sixth Amendment’s plain terms to allow any qualified voter to vote by mail without regard to age, the elections administrators will be unable to conduct the November election without endangering the lives and health of voters and election workers.”
Ryan and other local government officials have been fighting to ensure the vote by mail is available to all Texans in order to decrease the spread of COVID-19 that could occur during in-person voting. The County Attorney maintains that dramatically increasing the ratio of mail voters is crucial to spreading out voter congregation during in-person voting so that social distancing and other safety measures may be effectively implemented to protect those voters who wish to vote in person.
The election administrators are asking the Supreme Court to move expeditiously on their request.
The federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed a U.S. District Court judge’s order that made Vote by Mail more accessible. However, an Appeals Court panel won’t consider the issue until the end of August. Ryan points out that time is of the essence since mail ballots are sent to voters beginning September 19, leaving little time before the November election for the hearing and an appeal to the Supreme Court should the Appeals Court rule against the election administrators.
Ryan also explained that early voting turnout was extraordinarily high for the primary runoff that took place on July 14th, as was the volume of mail voters compared to in-person voters.
Typically, Texas primary runoff elections attract 5 percent voter turnout, but the July election produced nearly 10 percent turnout statewide. For November, Harris County expects higher than usual turnout, even for a presidential year, and need to safely accommodate six to seven times more voters than in July. That translates to 1.5 million to 1.75 million voters up from the 224,305 who voted in the primary runoff.
The Harris County Clerk sent mail ballot applications to every registered voter, 65 or older, to increase the ratio in the July runoff and protect the health of older Texans who are more susceptible to COVID-19’s more dangerous symptoms. This outreach paid off and appears to have greatly increased the ratio of mail ballot voters. For the top fifteen counties in terms of registered voters, an average of 28.9 percent of Democratic primary voters and 25.6 percent of Republican primary voters voted by mail. Harris County had the second highest ratios at 40.7 percent and 58.8 percent respectively. With this higher use of vote by mail, even with the increased turnout overall, Harris County was able to largely avoid lines during in-person early voting and long lines on Election Day and thus ensure adequate social distancing.
“Holding the November election without allowing eligible voters under 65 to vote by mail creates multiple problems of crowds, lines and the resulting increased risk of COVID-19 exposure,” Ryan explained. “Crowd and line length will be exacerbated as the repeal of the time-saving straight-ticket voting method goes into effect this November.”
The effect will be most acutely felt in Harris County with its enormous ballot length of more than eighty races. Recruiting an adequate number of election workers is an increasing challenge as COVID-19 surges. Some jurisdictions had to close polling sites during the primary runoff due to worker shortages prompted by avoiding COVID-19 exposure and concerns about potential confrontations with voters who refuse to wear a mask. Similarly, securing an adequate number of polling places has been a challenge. Grocery stores, schools, nursing homes and other private buildings typically used for polling places are often not large enough for social distancing.
“Increased vote-by-mail will not be disruptive but a failure to do so will be a threat to public health and safety,” said Ryan. “Action by the Supreme Court need not be at the last minute by waiting for the Fifth Circuit’s September or later resolution. Citizens should not have to sacrifice their health in order to exercise their constitutionally-protected right to cast a ballot.”
To view a copy of the amicus brief that was filed by Harris County Attorney Ryan, please visit http://www2.harriscountytx.gov/cmpdocuments/caoimages/Counties%20SCOTUS%20Amicus%20Final.pdf.