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Gov. Abbott limits mail ballot drop-off locations, forcing Harris County to close 11 sites

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday declared that counties can designate only one location to collect completed mail ballots from voters, forcing Harris County to abandon 11 sites set up for that purpose.

Abbott’s proclamation also said counties must allow poll watchers to “observe any activity conducted at the early voting clerk’s office” related to the delivery of marked ballots. He said the measure was designed to improve ballot security.

“The state of Texas has a duty to voters to maintain the integrity of our election,” Abbott said in a statement. “These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting.”

Abbott did not cite any examples of voter fraud, which election law experts say is exceedingly rare.

The proclamation drew swift accusations of voter suppression in a state that already has among the strictest eligibility rules for mail-in voting.

“Republicans are on the verge of losing, so Governor Abbott is trying to adjust the rules at the last minute,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.

Texas is one of a handful of states that requires residents to provide an excuse to qualify for a mail ballot. Still, counties have seen an exponential increase in mail ballot requests during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins had set up 12 locations — 11 of them county clerk annex offices — throughout the 1,777-square-mile county to collect mail ballots. They offered residents an alternative to placing their ballots in the mail, amid concerns that the U.S. Postal Service would struggle to deliver ballots on time.

The county now will only be able to accept ballots only at its election headquarters at NRG Arena.

Hollins accused Abbott of going back on his word in a July proclamation intended to make voting easier during the pandemic. He said Harris County for weeks has advertised its dropoff locations.

“To force hundreds of thousands of seniors and voters with disabilities to use a single dropoff location in a county that stretches nearly 2,000 square miles is prejudicial and dangerous.”

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said the governor’s claim that limiting mail ballot collection to one site will combat fraud makes no sense. At each location the Harris County set up, voters had to deliver their own ballots, sign in, speak with an assistant clerk and provide identification.

Consolidating that process to one site will make dropping off a ballot more cumbersome, he said.

“It’s a bit like saying we had a hurricane and everybody needs water, so we’re going to have everybody go to a single location,” Ray said. “We’re not going to distribute it around town.”

State leaders also are attempting to prevent Hollins from sending mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voter. The Supreme Court on Wednesday heard oral arguments in a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Ken Paxton seeking to halt Harris County’s plan.

More than 207,000 Harris County residents have requested mail ballots so far, far more than in any previous election. As of Thurday, 404 had already been returned.

The language of Abbott’s proclamation was similar to that used in a lawsuit filed by Houston conservative activist Steve Hotze with the Texas Supreme Court. Hotze argued that Harris County was violating the Texas Election Code by setting up multiple locations to collect mail ballots, accepting mail ballots before in-person voting began and extending the early voting period.

It was Abbott, however, who added an extra week of early voting in an effort to ensure residents could vote safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hotze, a litigious champion of far-right causes, filed a series of lawsuits challenging restrictions Abbott and local leaders issued during the early months of the pandemic.