Four days after the state’s top law enforcement officer warned county officials to avoid misleading the public on vote-by-mail laws, the second-most populous county in Texas signaled support for allowing voters to disregard the laws due to fears of the Chinese coronavirus.

Dallas County Commissioners Court voted 4-1 Tuesday to approve a resolution allowing any voter to claim a “disability” and vote by mail ballot in any 2020 election:

“[A] Dallas County voter who wants to vote by mail can send an application for ballot by mail to Dallas County Elections, check the box on the application indicating ‘Disability’ as the reason for voting by mail, and the elections division will process that application as normal.”

Commissioner J.J. Koch cast the lone vote against the resolution. Koch cited a May 1 letter from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to county judges and election officials explaining state election law does not allow voters to claim disability on mail-ballot applications based on fears of contracting the coronavirus:

“Accordingly, public officials shall not advise voters who lack a qualifying sickness or physical condition to vote by mail in response to COVID-19.”

Paxton’s letter also warned county officials could be criminally prosecuted for misleading the public about vote-by-mail laws:

“To the extent third parties advise voters to apply for a ballot by mail for reasons not authorized by the Election Code, including fear of contracting COVID-19 without an accompanying qualifying disability, such activity could subject those third parties to criminal sanctions imposed by Election Code section 84.0041.”

In Texas, only voters who are 65 or older, disabled, in jail, or outside their home county during an election are eligible to vote by mail.

No one currently verifies whether voters who check the “disability” box are actually disabled.

Elections Administrator Toni Pippins-Poole confirmed in an email to members of the court that Dallas County does “not investigate the reason for disability for any ballot application marked disability.”

Commissioner John Wiley Price, one of four Democrats on the five-member commissioners court, added the resolution to Tuesday’s court agenda. Despite being listed on the agenda as an order, Price emphasized it was simply a resolution, meaning it does not have the force of law.

Price’s resolution cited a ruling last month in a lawsuit filed by the Texas Democrat Party attempting to force Travis County to accept every mail-ballot application marked “disability.”

According to Price, the district court judge’s ruling in that case means any Texas voter “without established immunity to COVID-19 who wished to vote in any 2020 election has the right to vote by mail” as long as the virus is “in general circulation.”

Paxton, a Republican, said in his letter the lawsuit does not change or suspend the law. He said the order allowing all voters to claim disability is currently not in effect pending the state’s appeal and would not apply outside of Travis County.

Assistant District Attorney Russell Roden told commissioners Tuesday the ruling has been stayed and is not in effect during the appeal, but added there is “a difference of opinion on the impact of that. It is unclear.”

Roden said the resolution adopted by commissioners supports that someone should be able to have the vote-by-mail option, but it doesn’t dictate or mandate that it occur.

He also said the commissioners court does not have the authority to issue directions to the county’s elections administrator. That task falls to a special election board made up of the county judge, county clerk, tax assessor-collector, and chairs of the county’s Democrat and Republican parties. The Secretary of State is the state overseer of the election process, he said.

Koch, the only Republican on the court, argued commissioners should wait to see the outcome of the court case, so they don’t confuse voters or risk possible prosecution by the state. He wanted to delay consideration of the issue, but—by the court’s rules—wasn’t able to because it was a resolution and not an order.

“We refuse to do things the right way, especially when it comes to elections,” Koch said.

Nearly a dozen citizens called in to make public comments on the issue. Nine opposed the resolution; two spoke in favor.

Two deputy voter registrars representing Democrat-aligned community organizing groups said they favored allowing all voters to cast mail ballots.

“I don’t feel that I should have to put my life at risk to vote,” said Alice Kinsey of Texas Organizing Project, adding the county should send a ballot to every eligible mail-ballot voter and a vote-by-mail application to every voter in the county.

“Young people have a lot of anxiety over voting,” said Robert Elkin of March to the Polls. “The last thing that they need is to worry they’re putting their lives on the line when voting.”

“You are disseminating false information to the people of Dallas County,” said Susan Fountain, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee representing Senate District 16 in Dallas. “You’re encouraging citizens of Dallas County to falsify information on their applications for mail-in ballot… encouraging them to commit perjury.”

“I am very concerned about the voter fraud that we have that is already existing,” said Dallas resident Janet Mariani. “This will only cause more.”

Several other speakers also voiced concerns about voter fraud and said in-person voting could be conducted safely despite the coronavirus.

“We can vote in person and keep people safe at the same time,” Kailea Humphries told the court, adding universal vote-by-mail will “open the door to massive election and voter fraud.”

“Coronavirus has weakened many parts of our society,” Humphries said. “Please do not let it weaken our elections.”

“Money has already been allocated to states to increase public safety at the polls,” added Vicki Little. “Even in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak, they were able to conduct a fair election without using mail ballots.”

Dallas election worker Liz Beasil said she is concerned about an increased use of mail-in ballots because they are voted outside the supervision of election workers, making them vulnerable to fraud, and they are often not counted.

Election judge Cindy Castilla agreed, saying voters often show up at the polls and say they never received their mail-in ballots. “Also, the vote harvesting in Dallas County no one can deny,” she added.

“State election law does not allow voters to claim disability on mail-ballot applications based on fear of contracting the coronavirus,” Nancy Mello told commissioners. “We’re encouraging voter fraud.”

“We cannot rely on the U.S. Postal Service to handle our elections,” Mello added.

“They are violating their oaths of office,” Fountain said following the vote. “This is signaling to Toni Pippins-Poole to begin processing all requests for mail-in ballots because of disability to be granted without question.”

“It’s not about which team will win if we suppress votes or allow votes,” said County Judge Clay Jenkins prior to voting for the resolution, suggesting that not disregarding state voting laws amounts to voter “suppression.”

A voter fraud investigation in Starr County led to the arrest of several campaign workers known as politiqueras for fraudulently checking the disability box on ballot applications of voters who are not disabled, for the express purpose of illegally harvesting their ballots.

A recent poll shows 62 percent of voters believe expanded voting by mail leads to an increase in voter fraud, including 81 percent of Republicans and 48 percent of Democrats.

Democrat lawmakers have regularly argued against enacting photo voter ID laws for in-person voting, saying most voter fraud takes place with mail ballots. Yet Texas Democrats have set universal vote-by-mail as a policy goal for years, and like Democrats nationwide, they are now using the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to get through the courts a policy they’ve been unable to win in the legislature.

Voting by mail makes it impossible to verify that ballots are actually cast by eligible voters, free of coercion. Research of national data by the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a law firm dedicated to election integrity, also found 28 million mail ballots went missing in the past decade.

Dallas County has over 1.3 million registered voters. The county’s next scheduled election is the July 14 primary runoff. Early voting begins on July 6.

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.