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Questions over election integrity are swirling in Texas’ most populous county, as their top election official has announced he will be sending absentee ballot-by-mail applications to every registered voter in the county. 

Earlier this week, Democrat Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins announced that, for the upcoming November election, Harris County would take the unprecedented step of sending 2.37 million mail ballot applications to all of the county’s registered voters. The Harris County Commissioners Court approved the effort in a party-line vote, allocating more than $17 million in additional funding to the county’s election administration, raising the department’s total appropriation to over $29 million.

Concerns have been raised over both the massive increase in cost as well as the impact on election integrity that could result from countywide vote-by-mail.

The commissioners’ allocation this week would bring the total cost of administering the 2020 election in Harris County to nearly seven times the cost it took to administer the election in 2016.

The county says it is using federal CARES Act money, allocated to help states and local governments bear the costs of expenditures related to the Chinese coronavirus, to cover the increased price tag. That explanation has met opposition from some, including Republican Houston State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who expressed concern about the precedent this would set for future elections.

“Just because you can spend ‘free federal money’ doesn’t mean that you should, because it is all taxpayer monies,” said Bettencourt. “Regardless of COVID-19 status, this type of massive election spending is not sustainable without raising the property tax rate for the next set of elections in 2022 and beyond.”

“However, an even greater concern is if this mailing is even legal under current Texas election laws,” he added.

To that end, Bettencourt has requested Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and the Secretary of State’s office to weigh in on the undertaking.

Texas election law currently allows for absentee ballot-by-mail for voters who are either over the age of 65, disabled, out of the county during the voting period, or incarcerated but otherwise eligible to vote. Earlier this year, Texas Democrats tried unsuccessfully to argue in court that fear of contracting the coronavirus at a polling location constituted a “disability” that would allow for widespread absentee voting.

At the time, Paxton argued against the Democrats’ effort.

“Mail ballots based on disability are specifically reserved for those who are physically ill and cannot vote in person as a result. Fear of contracting COVID-19 does not amount to a sickness or physical condition as required by the Legislature,” said Paxton. “The integrity of our democratic election process must be maintained, and law established by our Legislature must be followed consistently.”

In Harris County, local Democrats’ push for universal vote-by-mail has its roots from before the virus, with Democrat County Commissioner Rodney Ellis being an outspoken proponent of the practice.

Conservatives, however, have been rightly skeptical of plans to expand mail-in ballots, as the process is often ripe for fraud and abuse. President Donald Trump has consistently been an outspoken critic of the process, warning about issues with election integrity.

 

Bettencourt has echoed the same concerns.

“Is not mailing 2.37 million absentee ballot-by-mail applications an open invitation to vote harvesters and fraud?” Bettencourt asked.

The Republican Party of Texas also voiced opposition to the plan on Thursday, saying, “It’s clear that the Harris County clerk, Chris Hollins, is a partisan Democrat who is using his position to dump an untold number of ballots loosely across Harris County.” The party also urged the Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughes to open an investigation to “review any foul play that could harm the integrity of our elections.”

“We cannot allow the Democrat Party to engage in ballot harvesting. It is up to Texas Republicans to defend the integrity of our democratic process.”

As of publication, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Secretary of State Ruth Hughes have yet to weigh in.