The governor of Texas has ordered voters to be able to cast their ballots by mail in one location per county before the presidential election.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said the move would end illegal voting.
Critics have accused Mr Abbott of voter suppression, pointing out that in some cases that means thousands of voters have to go to a single clerk’s office.
Coming weeks before the election, the order is forcing counties to close all points for depositing satellite ballots.
Texas is the second most populous US state and it would be a big victory for the candidates in the November 3 election. The state has been reliably Republican in modern presidential contests.
This time around, many more voters are expected to vote by mail or cast their ballots due to the pandemic.
Postal voting protocols differ slightly from state to state, but in Texas the first eligible voters can start casting their ballots this month.
Some of the larger counties in the state had already set up multiple drop-off sites. Harris County, home to the city of Houston and some four million residents, must now close 11 drop-off points, the Houston Chronicle reported.
In addition to raising questions about how millions of urban Texans will potentially have to visit a single drop-off site, the move can also be problematic for rural residents, who are spread across the state – which is also the second most large in America by area.
The ordinance goes into effect Friday.
In a statement following Thursday’s order, Mr Abbott cited Covid-19 to call for the strengthening of ballot security protocols.
“These improved security protocols will ensure greater transparency and help stop attempts at illegal voting. ”
Numerous national and state studies over the years have found no evidence of major and widespread fraud in postal voting.
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Texas Democratic President Gilberto Hinojosa responded to the announcement by accusing the “scared” Republicans of trying to change the rules when they were “on the verge of losing.”
Mr Hinojosa added that courts across the United States have said it is too late to make changes to electoral rules, “but our failed Republican leadership will try anyway.”
Mr. Abbott’s proclamation will cause “widespread confusion and suppression of voters,” Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said in a statement. Harris County, which encompasses Houston, is the most populous county in the state.
“Several drop-off locations have been advertised for weeks,” he said. “Forcing hundreds of thousands of elderly and disabled voters to use one drop-off location… is damaging and dangerous. ”
Mr Abbott’s order also states that poll officials must allow poll observers to be present at the drop-off site.
Poll observers are people who can keep an eye on any violation of electoral law at the polling place and during the counting process. They cannot intimidate or talk to voters.
President Donald Trump has urged his supporters to become poll watchers while suggesting the election could be rigged.
It is difficult to grasp the exact size of the state of Texas. There are counties in the west as large as small states in the United States. The Dallas-Fort Worth region has a population greater than a dozen European countries. It has an economy roughly the size of Russia.
Texas also has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country, with just 46.5% of the voting-age population voting in 2016.
Those numbers will not be improved by Gov. Abbott’s decision to mandate only one ballot drop-off location per county statewide. This will be a burden in populated areas like Houston, where traffic and density make travel slow, and in the west, where large open spaces make it difficult.
The state has a robust early voting system, but due to concerns about in-person voting during the Covid-19 pandemic, at-risk Texas may prefer to limit exposure.
Those on the left will see Mr Abbott’s decision, combined with other Republican efforts to limit absentee voting – especially in Democratic-leaning urban areas – as an attempt to prevent their party from winning key elections at the level. state or, perhaps, even to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1976.
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