Texas appeals court upholds ruling that expands voting by mail during pandemic

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A Texas appeals court on Thursday upheld a lower court ruling that temporarily expanded mail-in balloting for any voters who fear for their health because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The 14th Court of Appeals ruled in a split 2-1 decision that it would let stand a lower court’s decision that fear of contracting the coronavirus made a voter eligible to vote by mail under state law.

The case was originally brought by the Democratic Party of Texas, which is looking to expand the ability of voters to cast ballots during the pandemic. The party hopes to continue gaining ground on Republicans, who have held a lock on Texas politics for decades.

U.S. President Donald Trump won the state by 9 percentage points over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But Democrats made gains in the 2018 midterm elections at the state and federal congressional levels, and are confident that if they could get more ballots counted they would win more elections. Six Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas are retiring and their seats are up for grabs in November.

Last month, Travis County Judge Tim Sulak ruled that mail-in ballots should be allowed for voters who fear for their health in the pandemic.

Sulak ruled that any voter could use a mail-in ballot at least through July’s primary run-off elections. Voting by mail in Texas is allowed only if a citizen meets specific disability guidelines that prevent them from physically going to the poll.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argued for the state in the case that “fear of contracting COVID-19 unaccompanied by a qualifying sickness or physical condition does not constitute a disability under the Election Code for purposes of receiving a ballot by mail.”

Paxton on Wednesday asked the state’s Supreme Court to weigh in within two weeks on the matter and order leaders in five Texas counties to stop giving mail-in vote eligibility to voters because of their fear of contracting the coronavirus.

Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa has said that the chaotic April 7 election in Wisconsin, in which voters were forced to risk health concerns to head to the polls, showed that election rules must adjust to the realities of the pandemic.

At least 67 people are known to have become infected with the coronavirus after voting or working at polls during the Wisconsin election, according to the state’s health department, though a few of those may have been exposed elsewhere, officials said.

Reporting by Brad Brooks; Editing by Dan Grebler