The move significantly affects the Democratic stronghold of Harris County, which is the state’s largest county by population — one of the most populous in the country — and covers a massive area. It must now reduce its 12 drop-off locations down to one starting on Friday, according to Elizabeth Lewis, spokeswoman for the Harris County Clerk’s Office. Travis County, which includes the reliably Democratic city of Austin, must limit its four drop-off locations to one.
Other large counties — like Tarrant, Dallas and El Paso County — only had one drop-off location already in place.
The Republican governor said in a statement the order was made to enhance ballot security. It also allows poll watchers to observe the in-person delivery of mail-in ballots by voters, but critics say it could severely limit access for many voters.
“The State of Texas has a duty to voters to maintain the integrity of our elections,” Abbott said. “As we work to preserve Texans’ ability to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take extra care to strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state. These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting.”
The decision has already drawn fire from Texas Democrats.
Judge Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Harris County, told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on “PrimeTime” Thursday evening, “There is no reason for this decision to limit us to one drop-off location other than voter suppression.”
Calling the drop-off sites “secure” and “safe,” Hidalgo urged Texas residents to consider, “If these leaders truly are doing right by you, why are they so afraid of you voting?”
“I’m reminding our residents here in Harris County, our citizens, that we are not to be intimidated. That this is a time to participate, and, yes, it’s going to be harder and, yes, they’re trying to confuse and they’re trying to suppress the vote, but for that very reason, we need to show everyone who’s watching that we’re going to participate because it’s about democracy.”
The state’s Democratic party chair, Gilberto Hinojosa, labeled the step a “blatant voter suppression tactic” in a press release. The group Let America Vote also blasted the move.
“The governor is making it harder for people to vote in the middle of a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of over 16,000 Texans,” the group said in a statement. “It is a shameful, blatant act of voter suppression that will disproportionately impact the large number of Black and Latinx voters in Texas’ biggest counties.”
Former Democratic presidential candidate and Texas native Julian Castro similarly cast Abbott’s proclamation as an effort to make voting “harder for fellow Texans.”
The Republican governor, he tweeted, “knows how angry Texans are with Trump’s failure, (Republican Sen. John) Cornyn’s failure and his own to keep Texans safe and our people working.”
In July, Abbott issued an order expanding the amount of time for early voting by six days and for hand-delivering mail-in ballots out of safety concerns due to the pandemic.
Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said in a statement that Abbott was going back on his word with the proclamation, having expanded access to voting with that earlier order.
“Going back on his word at this point harms voters and will result in widespread confusion and voter suppression. Many mail ballots have already been dropped off by voters across Harris County, and multiple drop-off locations have been advertised for weeks,” Hollins said.
“Our office is more than willing to accommodate poll watchers at mail ballot drop-off locations. But 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.”
A pair of recent court rulings — one in favor of age limits for no-excuse mail voting and one against the sending of mail-in ballot applications to residents in Harris County — have enraged Texas Democrats and voting rights activists.
Texas has been traditionally Republican over the last several decades, but Democrats think it is in play in the November election. Multiple polls have found a tight race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden in the Lone Star State, with several indicating the candidates were separated by only 1 point in July.
Abbott’s stated concerns about “attempts at illegal voting” in Texas come as the President continues to lean into a conspiratorial message around the US voting process and particularly mail-in voting.
While rare instances of voter fraud from mail-in ballots do occur, it is nowhere near a widespread problem in the US election system.
In fact, mail ballot fraud is exceedingly rare in part because states have systems and processes in place to prevent forgery, theft and voter fraud. These systems would apply to both absentee ballots and mail-in ballots for in-state voters.
This story has been updated with comment from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins and an updated number of ballot drop-off locations from his spokeswoman, Elizabeth Lewis.