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Mirza: “Texas has a big issue with voter suppression.” Courtesy of Texas Civil Rights Project

As the death toll from COVID-19 passes 200,000 in the United States, a record number of Americans are opting for absentee ballots as a means of safely casting their November 3 votes. Recent reporting by The New York Times found that requests for mail-in ballots have already surpassed 2016 totals in 13 states.

As part of a nationwide movement to expand voting rights, Texas has been the target of numerous lawsuits that aim to reduce voter restrictions and the legacy of the Lone Star State’s decades of voter suppression. Efforts to allow Texas to join the two-thirds of U.S. states that offer mail-in voting to all eligible voters have so far been unsuccessful.

In response to one failed lawsuit that reached the Texas Supreme Court and aimed to expand absentee ballots for public safety reasons, State Attorney General Ken Paxton said that “protecting the integrity of elections is one of my most important and sacred obligations.”

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Paxton was referring to voter fraud, which remains “infinitesimally small” in the United States, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute.

Lawyers with the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), a 30-year-old equality and justice nonprofit, recently expanded Texas voting rights by removing an arbitrary means of invalidating votes — signature analysis. County election officials and volunteers who have no formal training in signature analysis were allowed to discard ballots based on personal presumptions before the recent federal court victory.

“We’ve been getting calls about this issue for a long time,” said Hani Mirza, TCRP senior attorney.

Last year, TCRP staffers fielded complaints from two Texas residents who said their ballots were invalidated based on faulty signature matching. Since state election codes did not require that voters be immediately notified that their ballot was discarded, the two plaintiffs were informed of their disenfranchisement several days after the election, Mirza said.

“We filed suit to make sure that voters were provided Constitutional due process for any signature mismatch issue,” he said.

Plaintiffs in the case included the Austin Justice Coalition, Coalitions of Texans with Disabilities, League of Women Voters in Texas, and the American GI Forum of Texas. Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled that Texas’ system for determining mismatched ballots based on signatures “plainly violates certain voters’ Constitutional rights.”

Judge Garcia ordered that voters be notified of a ballot rejection by the following day. Voters are now given the opportunity to challenge ballot rejections.

“Under the old system, [elections officials] would be required to tell you up to 10 days after the election” about a rejection, Mirza said. “Some people may be out of the country or state and unable to come back to vote in person. Most of these rejections, from what we’ve seen, were sent out after the election ended.”

TCRP enjoyed another potentially far-reaching victory when a federal judge recently ruled that Texas has to offer online voter registration when residents apply for or renew their driver’s licenses. Every year, according to Mirza, nearly 2 million Texans update their driving information through the Department of Public Safety’s online portal.

“Before the ruling, voters were given a link to a printable voter registration form that you have to fill out on your own, then stamp and mail to get registered,” Mirza said.

By allowing voters to register through that portal, the Lone Star State came into compliance with the National Voter Registration Act. The victory did not come easily.

“They fought us tooth and nail,” Mirza, said, referring to Paxton and his legal team. “I can’t tell what their intentions were. They have fought us on a lot of these types of issues when it comes to making voting compliant with federal law. That’s unfortunate.”

Mirza said Texans are highly motivated to vote in this year’s general election. He worries about how effectively polling stations can be monitored. COVID-19 has placed barriers to fielding TCRP poll observers across the state.

“Things may have to change, but we are committed to putting in 100% effort to protect the integrity of the voting system, especially because of the coronavirus,” he said. “Texas has a big issue with voter suppression. I think it’s something that we have committed to fighting.”

Monday, October 5, is the last day to register to vote in Texas. Information about registration and other vote-related information can be found at VoteTexas.gov.

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