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Early voting begins in Texas with high turnout, despite new legal developments on voting access

Early voting in Texas began Tuesday with crowds of excited voters waiting in line for several hours in some places to cast their ballots, even as new legal developments sowed confusion and threatened to restrict options for voting ahead of Election Day.

As they have in other states, long lines formed outside voting locations as socially distanced voters sometimes turned up hours before early in-person voting began Tuesday morning. Many brought folding chairs, lunches and umbrellas to wait their turn.

Meanwhile, a federal panel of judges overturned a lower-court ruling in Texas that had allowed counties across the state to offer multiple locations for voters to drop off their absentee ballots in person. And election officials contended with a new lawsuit from the Texas GOP seeking to block the Harris County clerk from allowing any registered voter to vote in person from their car or at the curb  options that appeared popular Tuesday amid coronavirus concerns.

The legal tug-of-war added a new layer of anxiety for voters casting their ballots in Texas, a large and historically Republican state that Democrats have sought to put in play for the general election.

In the new lawsuit, Texas Republicans argued that the Harris County Clerk’s Office had violated the state elections code by expanding access to drive-through early-voting sites, which had previously been available only to those who were physically unable to enter a polling place or had health concerns. The expansion was designed to limit exposure to coronavirus.

In response to voter questions Tuesday in the wake of the suit, the Harris County clerk tweeted that “all votes made through drive-thru voting locations are valid and will be counted,” underscoring the ongoing election dispute even as voting was well underway.

Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat and the top elected county official in Harris, the largest county in Texas, also said the drive-through sites will remain open for voters barring a court decision. She called the lawsuit a “shameless” attempt at chilling the vote and sowing confusion.

“There is a sort of collective anxiety from folks who . . . can see just how hard certain folks are trying to keep them from voting,” Hidalgo said, adding that she is energized to see a surge in voter interest despite the hurdles.

Gov. Greg Abbott, meanwhile, hailed the 5th Circuit court decision in the statewide absentee ballot drop-off location dispute, tweeting: “The Federal Court of Appeals upholds my proclamation about mail-in ballots saying that it actually expanded access to voting by allowing drop-offs before election day.”

He added: “Critics were clearly clueless about the legality of my action & simply voiced prejudicial political opinions.”

Election officials in the state’s most-populous counties anticipated that a record number of voters would cast their ballots before Election Day, taking advantage of six additional days of early voting and new options such as drop boxes and drive-through sites for those who want to avoid exposure to the novel coronavirus or potential mail delays.

More than 128,000 people had voted in Harris County, setting a new turnout record for a single day of early voting, according to the county clerk’s office.

A long line of people waited to vote at Sunnyside Multi-Service Center in Southeast Houston on a warm, cloudless early afternoon, with an estimated wait time of about 40 minutes.

Amos Miles, 64, said he has typically voted at the location and had rarely seen it so crowded. Miles said he didn’t mind the wait because he believed Abbott and other Republicans were trying to threaten voter access.

“This is an important election,” Miles said. “If we don’t speak out, we’re going to get left out.”

There was one location where voters could drop off their mail ballots in person in Harris County, per the new ruling issued Monday.

The three-judge panel from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman had usurped state officials’ authority over election law in overruling Abbott’s move to allow counties to provide just one drop-off location apiece.

The governor’s proclamation “does nothing to prevent Texans from mailing in their absentee ballots, as they have done in the past in election after election,” the decision states. “Properly understood . . . the October 1 proclamation is part of an expansion of absentee voting in Texas, not a restriction of it.”

Voting rights advocates had sued Abbott, contending that the rule burdens voters and “undermines the public’s confidence in the election itself.”

The three judges responsible for Monday’s decision are all appointees of President Trump.

The state is one of only five that are prohibiting voters from casting their ballots by mail this fall if their only reason for wanting to do so is their fear of being exposed to the coronavirus.

At the NRG Arena, the drop-off site in Harris County, four tents were set up in the Blue Lot where people could drop off their ballots. A steady stream of residents in cars pulled up, rolled down their windows and handed their ballots to poll workers, who then checked the voter’s ID to confirm their identity.

Mary and Edgar Jackson drove about 20 minutes from their home in Northeast Houston to drop off her ballot.

“We want to make sure our voices are heard,” said Mary, 74. “It’s important to vote, especially for Black people. Our grandparents didn’t have this opportunity to vote like we do, and they have fought and died for this right, so we’re going to not neglect it.”

In Travis County, which encompasses liberal Austin, more than 14,000 people had voted at 37 early voting locations, and the turnout exceeded local officials’ expectations. Lines moved steadily, with roughly a 30-minute line or less at most locations. But one popular location had about a three-hour wait on Tuesday, prompting election officials to publicly ask voters to relocate to the lower-traffic sites.

Dana DeBeauvoir, Travis County clerk, said she anticipates about 650,000 of the county’s eligible 850,000 voters will cast their ballot before Election Day, with a record number of them using mail ballots.

At another polling place in Fort Worth, voters waited about two hours on Tuesday morning, said Roxanne Kateley, 28, who was reached through ProPublica’s ElectionLand voter tip line. Those in line were generally polite, but were irritable at one point when they learned that an unspecified technical glitch had added to their wait time, she said.

“I was ready to wait an hour just in case. But two and half hours seemed extremely long,” she said, adding that she was relieved to have eventually cast her ballot on the first day.