(Reuters) - The Republican governor of Texas on Thursday said each county in the state will be limited to a single site for dropping off absentee ballots, drawing condemnation from Democrats and voting rights advocates.
Governor Greg Abbott’s order will close more than a dozen satellite locations in at least two counties: Harris, which includes Houston, had opened 12 sites to collect early mail ballots, while Travis, which includes Austin, had four.
For voters who want to return absentee ballots in person rather than by mail, the changes mean some will have to travel greater distances to cast their votes in the Nov. 3 election.
“This is blatant voter suppression,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, a voting rights group.
The state is a longtime Republican stronghold but this year President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden are fighting what could be a tight race to win Texas’s electoral votes.
Abbot said the order was aimed at preventing election fraud.
“These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting,” he said in a statement.
The fight between Republicans and Democrats over absentee ballots has become a defining issue of the 2020 election. Absentee voting is expected to surge due to the coronavirus pandemic. Without citing evidence, Trump and his Republican allies have warned absentee voting is rife with fraud.
Texas is one of the few U.S. states that limits who can request absentee ballots: only voters who are over the age of 65, have a disability, are confined to a jail or will be out of town on Election Day can vote by mail.
Earlier this year, both the state Supreme Court and a federal appeals court rejected efforts to extend mail voting to all Texans amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Abbott issued an order in July allowing voters to submit mail ballots in advance, rather than only on Election Day, and extending early voting by several days. Thursday’s proclamation modified that order.
The Harris county clerk, Chris Hollins, said the change will create “widespread confusion,” noting that multiple locations have been advertised for weeks.
“To force hundreds of thousands of seniors and voters with disabilities to use a single drop-off location in a county that stretches over nearly 2,000 square miles is prejudicial and dangerous,” Hollins said.
Hollins has previously clashed with the state’s Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton, who successfully petitioned the state Supreme Court to block Hollins’ effort to mail absentee ballot applications to all voters.
The decision drew immediate criticism from the chairman of the state Democratic Party, Gilberto Hinojosa, that Abbott was changing the rules at the last minute.
“Governor Abbott and Texas Republicans are scared,” he said in a statement. “We are creating a movement that will beat them at the ballot box on Nov. 3, and there’s nothing these cheaters can do about it.”
Thanks largely to Houston, Harris County is a Democratic stronghold.
Reporting by Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey; Additional reporting by Callaghan O’Hare in Houston and Jason Lange in Washington; Editing by Daniel Wallis
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