Texas drive-through voting upheld as judge blocks Republican bid to reject ballots

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FILE PHOTO: A voter sanitizes her hand after casting a ballot for the upcoming presidential election as early voting begins in Houston, Texas, U.S., October 13, 2020. REUTERS/Go Nakamura/File Photo/File Photo

HOUSTON (Reuters) – A federal judge in Texas on Monday denied an attempt by Republicans to throw out about 127,000 votes already cast in the U.S. presidential election at drive-through voting sites in Houston, a Democratic-leaning area.

The plaintiffs had accused Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, a Democrat, of acting illegally when he allowed drive-through voting as an alternative during the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen said the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the case. “I find that when you balance the harms you’ve got to weigh in favor of counting the votes,” he added.

The judge also faulted the plaintiffs for waiting until Oct. 28 to file their case in his court even though drive-through voting was used without challenge in July primary runoffs.

“Didn’t we test this in the primaries this summer?,” Hanen said during a three-hour hearing, adding: “Why am I just getting this case?”

Jared Woodfill, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told reporters they will appeal to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. They will also appeal a similar loss in state court on Sunday to the U.S. Supreme Court, Woodfill said.

Hollins told reporters that drive-through voting sites in Harris County, which includes Houston, would be open on Election Day as scheduled. “This is a huge win for democracy, especially at a time when it appears that democracy itself is on the ballot,” Hollins said.

Harris County, home to about 4.7 million people, is the third-most populous county in the United States. It currently has 10 drive-through polling sites available to all voters among 800 total voting places.

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

The Texas Supreme Court on Sunday rejected a nearly identical bid by the same plaintiffs, who include conservative activist Steve Hotze and judicial candidate Sharon Hemphill, 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.

The lawsuits asserted that the county did not have the authority to decide election procedures and that drive-through voting violated the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because voters in other Texas counties do not have the chance to take part in drive-through voting.

Hundreds of legal challenges have been brought in the months leading up to Tuesday’s Election Day 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.

In Nevada, a judge on Monday dealt another setback to Republicans who had filed a lawsuit claiming ballot-counting measures in Clark County, home to Las Vegas, were plagued by problems. The ruling found the plaintiffs lacked standing and had failed to present evidence that the procedures had led to counting of fraudulent votes.

 

‘MAKE OR BREAK TEXAS’

Biden’s campaign praised Hanen’s ruling, saying in a statement that it reflects a “victory for voters across the country who are exercising their constitutional right to make their voices heard.”

In Houston, Sarah and Dan Jones were among protesters outside the federal courthouse on Monday morning, and they brought their four children, ages 10 to six months.

They voted at a drive-through site a few weeks ago and found out Saturday their ballots were being challenged, they said.

“I’ve never felt so important in my life,” said Sarah Jones, 32. “Harris County can make or break Texas.”

Both voted for Biden. Dan Jones, 38, said he also voted for Hemphill, one of the plaintiffs.

“I voted for her, and she’s trying to get my ballot thrown out,” he said.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe and Jennifer Hiller; Additional reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Alistair Bell, Noeleen Walder, and Cynthia Osterman)

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