You might call Election Year 2020 "Politics in The Time of Pandemic."
Some Texas laws are being challenged since the nation realized that the highly contagious COVID-19 coronavirus is a deadly pandemic. It has killed more than 200,000 people in the U.S. since March and may nearly double that toll by year's end.
Some federal and state judges in Texas are agreeing with challenges to voting laws that require voting in person, in crowded polling places with long waits – while government health officials warn exposure to groups could kill you and other family members or expose others to the virus.
The most recent court ruling was Friday, Sept. 25, when a federal district judge in Laredo enjoined a new Texas law removing Texas' option for straight-ticket voting. Until this year, voters in general elections could go into a polling booth, punch one button or pull one lever, and vote for every candidate of that party on the ballot. But beginning in this Nov. 3 election, voters can't do that. To vote for every Republican, for instance, you'll have to go down the ballot and mark your vote for each Republican candidate, one by one.
U. S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo said removing the ability to vote a straight ticket with one punch will slow down the voting process substantially. That also increases the time people spend in polling places and in longer lines waiting to get in – that some will walk away from without voting.
“The longer voters stand in line, the greater the risk that they contract COVID-19. Texans already wait a long time to exercise their right to vote,” the judge wrote.
Back in June, Garcia Marmolejo had dismissed a similar lawsuit by the Texas Democratic Party, saying complaints about the pandemic’s dangers were speculative. But with projections much closer to the Nov. 3 election that the pandemic's dangers of spreading will continue well past it, the changed circumstances have changed her mind.
The new lawsuit, filed in August by two national organizations, plus the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans and Webb County’s Democratic chairwoman, argued a worsening pandemic required another look at a law that “recklessly created a recipe for disaster at the polls in 2020.”
The law to remove the one-punch ability – House Bill 25 – was passed by the Texas Legislature in 2017, but to take effect Sept. 1, 2020.
In the 2016 general election, two-thirds of the votes in the state's two largest counties – Harris and Dallas – had voted straight ticket – but more so the Democrats:
Harris: D-35.3 %; R-30%
Dallas: D-41.3%; R-23.8%
Adding to a presumption the law axing the straight-ticket voting option was designed by Republicans to benefit Republicans, the vote in the Republican-dominated Texas House of Representatives was 88-57.
Only three Democrats voted for the change. Just seven Republicans voted to keep one-punch voting.
In the Sept. 25 lawsuit, the plaintiffs argued that Texans have been afforded an opportunity for "efficient but deliberate" voting by the straight-ticket option, which more than half of Texas voters use.
Garcia Marmolejo agreed. When a dangerous pandemic is added to the equation, the Texas law ending straight-ticket voting improperly infringes on the constitutional right to vote and to associate, she concluded.
“Granting this injunction is in the public’s interest,” the judge wrote, calling the state’s rules on voting during the pandemic “perplexing.” She acknowledged that the change, if it occurs, poses a huge headache for election officials to change ballots and reconfigure voting machines.
But straight-ticket voting is more efficient “in a time where any additional time spent in line endangers the safety of voters, poll workers, and others not at the polls,” the judge wrote.
In other challenges back in March, when the coronavirus began to be recognized as a serious danger, the Democrats had challenged the Texas law on who can vote by mail. The current law limits eligibility to persons 65 and over, disabled, out of the county during the election period, or in jail but not convicted.
The Democrats argued before state and federal judges that people under 65 should be able to vote by mail for fear of contracting or spreading the virus. Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, a consistent opponent to fear of COVID-19 qualifying as disabled, argued against any change.
The Democrats won in both the state and federal courts initially but were stalled after Paxton's appeals to appellate courts. As for the straight-ticket voting appeal, it was immediately challenged by the attorney general.