April 23, 2020/Blog, Media

Texas Democratic Party Lawsuits Challenging Republican Voter Suppression Efforts and Protecting Voting Rights

The Texas Democratic Party is engaging in a wide range of initiatives in order to ensure widespread voting access for eligible Texans across the state. In addition to our organizing efforts, Texas Democrats are investing in a legal infrastructure to combat the decades-long voter suppression campaign spearheaded by Republicans and ensure all voters have convenient options to access the ballot box, including young people, communities of color, and rural Texans. 

Texas Republicans have erected barriers, primarily through legislative channels, in order to dilute the voting power of likely Democratic voters. Through our legal efforts, Texas Democrats are continuing to fight back against these undemocratic voter suppression efforts, which have been struck down by courts time and time again. 

Mail-in Ballot Elections During COVID-19 

In March 2020, the Texas Democratic Party filed a lawsuit against the Texas Secretary of State and Travis County Elections in Travis County District Court demanding a declaratory judgment that allows all eligible voters, who believe their health is in danger under the threat of COVID-19, the ability to cast their ballot by mail if they so choose. On April 17, 2020, Judge Tim Sulak of the Travis County District Court ruled in favor of the TDP. 

According to Judge Sulak’s ruling of April 17, current law allows any voter whose health may be injured by voting in person to vote by mail. This lawsuit would allow any person who does not want to risk their health or that of their family during this coronavirus pandemic to vote by mail.

The State of Texas appealed the decision. Travis County did not. On May 14, 2020, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals affirmed this order was in effect. On May 15, the Supreme Court of Texas stayed the Appeals court’s order. On May 27, the Supreme Court of Texas decided in a separate proceeding that “a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a ‘disability’ as defined by the Election Code.” But the court also stated that “election officials have no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face,” and that the “decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s, subject to a correct understanding of the statutory definition of “disability.” The TDP will continue to fight for Texas voters’ right to vote safely.

Relevant filings:


 

In April 2020, the Texas Democratic Party filed a lawsuit in United States District Court against Governor Abbott, Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughes, the Travis County Clerk, and the Bexar County Elections Administrator in our ongoing effort to demand mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic. The Texas Democratic Party contends that the state’s restrictions on mail voting unconstitutionally inhibit voters’ right to vote during this public health crisis. There was a hearing in this case on May 15, 2020, and we are awaiting a ruling. There was a hearing in this case on May 15, 2020, and on May 19, 2020, the United States District Court granted the Texas Democratic Party and the other plaintiffs a preliminary injunction enabling counties to permit the use of absentee ballots due to COVID-19 and preventing Attorney General Ken Paxton from threatening the prosecution of voters. The Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State have appealed the district court’s decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. On May 20, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order staying the District Court’s injunction.

On June 16, the TDP and other plaintiffs filed a petition for writ of certiorati before judgement with the United States Supreme Court, asking it to rule that Section 82 of the Texas Election Code, which restricts no-excuse vote-by-mail voting to only those 65 and older, violates the 26th Amendment’s directive that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.” The TDP and other plaintiffs also filed an application with the U.S. Supreme Court to vacate the Fifth Circuit’s order staying the district court’s injunction. On June 26, the Supreme Court denied the application, and the case is now currently back before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeal has been fully briefed, and there will be oral argument before the Fifth Circuit on August 31.

Republicans have opposed expanding vote-by-mail without providing any credible justification. As our city and county leaders issue shelter-in-place orders and our residents are urged to stay inside, we must protect Texans’ ability to cast a ballot without jeopardizing their health or safety.

Relevant filings:

Straight-Ticket Voting

In March 2020, The Texas Democratic Party, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) announced a new lawsuit to prevent the Texas Secretary of State from implementing a law that would eliminate straight-ticket voting. For more than a century, this practice has been a crucial benefit to Texas voters, who regularly face long lines to vote and whose ballots are among the longest in the country. In the 2018 election, two-thirds of voters — more than 5.6 million Texans — used the practice, and as a result, were able to cast a vote in every down-ballot race.

Facing the prospect of historic turnout in 2020, Texas Republicans have passed a law that, if implemented, threatens to drive up already-high wait times at polling places, disproportionately impacting African American and Hispanic voters who are not only more likely to use straight-ticket voting, but already face higher wait times and greater obstacles to voting — further suppressing minority votes and violating both the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. Democrats filed suit to prevent this law from going into effect.

On June 24, the United States District Court dismissed the case without prejudice.

Relevant filings:

Voter Registration Complaints at DPS

In January, the Texas Democratic Party, the Texas Civil Rights Project, the DSCC, and the DCCC were awarded an injunction in our lawsuit forcing the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) to properly register certain named voters who updated their Driver’s Licenses online but whose voter registration records were not automatically updated.

During the 18 months between September 2013 and February 2015, the Secretary of State’s Elections Division received more than 4,600 complaints from voters about voter registration practices at DPS. The Texas Democratic Party refused to stand by as Republican leaders continued to disenfranchise voters. While our named plaintiffs were registered to vote in advance of the March primary election, we continue to fight to ensure that Texas complies with the National Voter Registration Act and to that effect filed a motion for summary judgment along with other plaintiffs on June 26.

Relevant filings:

Electronic Signature Ban

In January 2020, The Texas Democratic Party, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee filed a lawsuit challenging an unconstitutional electronic signature ban spearheaded by the Texas Secretary of State. In an effort to make it harder to vote, the Texas Secretary of State urged counties to reject thousands of voter registration forms with electronic or imaged signatures, claiming they lacked the required original signatures or “wet” signatures. Not only is the ban inconsistent with a federal court ruling that found no “legal impediment” to using electronic signatures, but it’s also an unconstitutional tool in the broader Republican effort to suppress voting access. On July 23, the TDP and other plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction to prevent the rejection of voter registration applications on the basis of a “wet signature” requirement.

Relevant filings:

Ballot Positioning

In November 2019, the Texas Democratic Party, the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee filed a lawsuit challenging the Texas law that gives Republicans prioritized positioning on general election ballots. This gives Republicans “first-listed” position and an unfair benefit in the 2020 elections.

For years, Republicans in the state of Texas have benefitted from the unconstitutional advantage mandating that the party of the Governor is placed first on the ballot. For over twenty years, Republicans have used dirty tactics and tricks like ballot order to retain power. On July 10, the United States District Court dismissed the lawsuit for lack of standing.

Relevant filings:

Mobile Polling Locations

The Texas Democratic Party, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee filed a lawsuit to overturn a ban on “mobile” early voting sites that serve Texans living near colleges and universities and those without reliable access to transportation. 

Per the DCCC:

  • In Travis County in 2018, more than 28,000 people, or nearly 6 percent of voters cast their ballots at these mobile early polling sites.
  • In Dallas County, officials placed mobile polling locations on college campuses for two days in 2016 and expanded it to three days in 2018 due to popular demand.
  • In Tarrant County, 11,000 votes were cast at early voting sites in 2018, including at the University of Texas at Arlington and Texas Christian University in 2020. 

The restrictions were enacted as a part of HB 1888 and seek to reverse the rise in voter participation observed in the 2018 midterm elections, where turnout surged broadly. In 2018, voter turnout rose by 18 percent over other midterm elections, and the youth early vote rose by 508 percent compared to 2014 — a significant increase credited to early voting and the “mobile” or temporary sites that offered more voters the opportunity to cast their ballots. On July 23, the TDP and other plaintiffs moved for leave to file an application for a preliminary injunction.