Groups sue Texas governor to block limits on ballot drops

AUSTIN, TX - MAY 18: Texas Governor Greg Abbott announces the reopening of more Texas businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic at a press conference at the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Monday, May 18, 2020. Abbott said that childcare facilities, y (Photo by Lynda M. Gonzalez-Pool/Getty Images)

Civil rights and voter advocacy groups have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block an order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that dramatically reduced the number of drop-off locations for mail ballots.

The lawsuit filed late Thursday could be the first of many legal challenges against Abbott’s order that assigns just one drop-off location in each of Texas’ 254 counties and allows poll watchers to observe ballot deliveries. The order, which took effect Friday, shutters dozens of sites statewide, including in Texas’ largest cities and Democratic strongholds.

RELATED: 2020 Election: Everything you need to know to vote in Texas

The Republican governor said the order is needed to ensure election security — echoing calls from President Donald Trump for his supporters to keep close watch on mail-in voting, but Democrats blasted it as blatant voter suppression.

The lawsuit filed in Austin names Abbott, Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs and election administrators in Harris, Fort Bend, Travis and El Paso counties. It was filed by the Texas League of United Latin American Citizens; the National League of United Latin American Citizens; the League of Women Voters of Texas; and two voters.

RELATED: Gov. Abbott issues order limiting mail-in ballot drop-off locations to one

Abbott’s order would eliminate 11 drop-off locations in Harris County, which includes the nation’s fourth largest city, Houston.

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, who is named in the lawsuit, said during a news conference Friday that Abbott’s move would force elderly and disabled people to drive long distances and wait in long lines to cast their ballot. He said he, too, would fight Abbott’s order.

“It’s something he should strongly reconsider and if he doesn’t reconsider himself he is going to hear about it in the courts,” Hollins said of Abbott.

Hollins is also named in a lawsuit from Abbott calling for the Harris County Clerk’s Office to stop plans to send mail ballot applications to the county’s more than 2 million registered voters.

RELATED: Harris Co. Judge reacts to Texas Governor's proclamation on mail-in ballot drop-offs

Abbott’s staff said he was not limiting voting, pointing out that he has increased the period during which voters can submit their mail-in ballots in person to include anytime up to Election Day.

“The additional time provided for those who want to submit their mail-in ballot in person is sufficient to accommodate the limited number of people who have traditionally used that voting strategy,” the governor’s office said in a statement.

Prominent members of the state Republican Party sued Abbott in September seeking to halt a one-week extension of early voting.

RELATED: Republicans sue Texas governor over expanded early voting

Voters have already begun returning ballots for the November presidential election. Texas is one of just five states not allowing widespread mail-in voting this year. To qualify for a mail-in ballot, Texas voters must be: away from their county of residence on Election Day and during the early voting period; sick or disabled; confined in jail but otherwise eligible to vote; or 65 years old or more.

Polls also show much tighter races in Texas this year. Democrats could take over the state House of Representatives for the first time in two decades.

For years, Texas had allowed straight-ticket voting, but Abbott signed a law in 2017 that eliminated the option starting this fall. Democrats sued to have it reinstated to reduce wait times for in-person voting, but a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that November’s elections are too close for Texas to restore straight-ticket voting as an option.

RELATED: Too late for Texas to use straight-ticket voting, court says

The U.S. Postal Service informed Texas in July that, given the state’s current mail ballot request deadline, some ballots may not be delivered to voters by Election Day, and that even if all ballots reached voters on time, there was a “significant risk” that completed ballots postmarked on or near Election Day would not be received by the state’s Nov. 4 deadline.

The Texas Secretary of State’s office has not responded to Associated Press requests for comment on its plans to ensure the timely delivery of ballots.