Supreme Court rebuffs Texas vote-by-mail expansion

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(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday sided with Republican state officials in Texas and refused to allow broader mail-in voting in the state, leaving in place a lower court ruling blocking the expansion sought by Democrats amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The justices let stand the ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that halted a federal judge’s earlier decision to permit any voter concerned about the threat of coronavirus infection to cast a ballot by mail. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, fought the expansion of mail-in voting.

There were no noted dissents on the high court, although liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a statement saying she hopes the 5th Circuit issues a final decision on the legal merits of the case “well in advance of the November election.”

State law makes mail-in ballots available only for Texans 65 and older or if a voter meets specific disability guidelines. But the state Democratic Party went to court to try to enable all eligible voters in Texas to vote by mail during this year’s election cycle including the Nov. 3 presidential election in light of the health threat from the novel coronavirus.

The plaintiffs argued that the restrictive state law on mail-in voting violates voting rights set out in the U.S. Constitution’s 26th Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery issued a decision finding that the Texas law, by treating voters differently by age, likely violates the 26th Amendment guarantee of the right to vote for American citizens age 18 and above.

Early voting begins on Monday for the July 14 party primary runoffs in Texas political races.

President Donald Trump, who is seeking re-election this year, and other Republicans have sought to portray mail-in voting as rife with fraud, though the practice has been used widely for decades without evidence of significant problems.

Democrats have accused Republicans of pursuing policies that make it harder to cast ballots as part of a broad voter-suppression effort aimed at sidelining voters who tend to support Democratic candidates.

Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham