U.S. judge weighs bid to void 127,000 votes cast at drive-through sites in Texas

(Reuters) – A federal judge in Texas will consider on Monday whether Houston officials should throw out about 127,000 votes already cast at drive-through voting sites in the Democratic-leaning area.

FILE PHOTO: A sign is seen outside a mail ballot drop-off site after Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order limiting each Texas county to one mail ballot drop-off site in Houston, Texas, U.S., October 1, 2020. REUTERS/Callaghan O’Hare

U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen is set to hear an emergency bid at 10:30 a.m. local time (16:30 GMT) by a Republican state legislator and others who accuse Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, a Democrat, of exceeding his constitutional authority by allowing drive-through voting as an alternative during the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit was brought on Wednesday by plaintiffs including state Representative Steve Toth and a conservative activist, Steve Hotze.

The Texas Supreme Court, a state court, on Sunday rejected a nearly identical bid by the same plaintiffs to halt drive-through voting in Harris County. The same court also previously denied similar challenges brought by the Texas Republican Party and the Harris County Republican Party.

Texas, the second largest U.S. state, is traditionally a Republican state, but polls show a tight race between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden with more than 9 million ballots already cast, eclipsing the state’s total turnout from the 2016 presidential election.

Harris County, home to the city of Houston and about 4.7 million people, is the third most populous county in the United States. It currently has 10 drive-through polling sites, which are available to all voters.

One of those who used a drive-through site and now believes the lawsuit plaintiffs are trying to void her vote is Hannah Smith, a 34-year-old Republican.

“We know that we cast our votes legally,” said Smith, who said she cast her ballot on Oct. 24 for Biden and Republican candidates down the ballot. “There’s no doubt in my mind what should be done, which is to count our votes.”

Smith, who works at a Houston-area hospital, said she learned of drive-through voting from the county clerk’s website, and that it seemed like a convenient and safe way to vote.

She said she would stand in line on Tuesday and try to vote again if her ballot were to be deemed void.

A lawyer for Hotze, Jared Woodfill, said on Sunday the plaintiffs may eventually take their fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hundreds of legal challenges have been brought in the months leading up to the Nov. 3 election over how Americans can cast their ballots. Democrats have generally tried to ease access to mail-in and other alternatives to in-person voting, while Trump has repeatedly made unfounded attacks on mail-in voting, claiming it leads to fraud.

Hanen was appointed by President George W. Bush, a Republican.

Democratic groups including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee denounced the plaintiff’s request to throw out the votes already cast as “wholly unreasonable,” in a motion on Friday asking to intervene in the case.

“They are simply trying to see what frivolous argument they can make to try and invalidate votes,” Harris County’s top administrator, Lina Hidalgo, said in a briefing on Sunday.

Michael Morley, a professor of election law at Florida State University, said he believes that the county has a strong legal basis under state law for implementing alternative voting methods during the pandemic.

“Even if the court disagreed, however, a remedy would most likely be purely prospective – prohibiting continued use of these mechanisms while still counting votes already cast,” he said.

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