Federal judge orders expansion of mail-in voting in Texas

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A federal judge Tuesday ordered Texas to allow any of the state's 16 million voters to cast a ballot by mail over fears of the coronavirus, paving the way for what would be one of the most dramatic expansions of mail-in voting in the country.

The decision is unlikely to be the last word. Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who in recent weeks has suggested that steering voters toward wrongly applying for mail-in ballots could result in prosecution, said the state would appeal. He called the ruling by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery a dismissal of “well-established law.”

The fight in Texas is just one of several court battles across the country over efforts, mainly by Democrats, to expand access to mail-in ballots amid the pandemic. In Wisconsin, where election officials drew widespread criticism for holding its April 7 presidential primary even as other states delayed voting, a new lawsuit filed Monday argued that not enough has been done since then to ensure that the upcoming elections can be conducted safely and fairly.

Voting by mail in Texas is generally limited to those 65 or older or those with a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents voting in person. In a lengthy ruling, Biery rejected Paxton's assertion that fear of getting the virus doesn’t qualify as a disability under the law.

“Clearly, fear and anxiety currently gripping the United States has limited citizens’ physical movements, affected their mental senses and constricted activities, socially and economically,” Biery wrote.

He also dismissed claims that expanding mail-in voting would invite fraud in Texas, citing scant evidence.

The ruling came just days after the Texas Supreme Court, which is entirely controlled by Republicans, handed Paxton a victory by blocking a lower ruling in state court that cleared the way for widespread vote-by-mail. Officials in Tennessee are also fighting efforts to expand mail-in voting under a similar defense as Texas, saying fear of contracting the coronavirus doesn’t meet medical criteria.

“It is time for a few state officers to stop trying to force people to expose themselves to COVID-19 in order to vote,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.

Texas is pressing ahead with one of the swiftest reopenings in the country. On Monday, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott gave permission to reopen practically every facet of daily life in Texas, including bars and child daycare centers, lifting most full lockdown orders. He said social distancing measures must still be in place, such as limits on customers and no fans at sports events.

Texas has nearly 50,000 cases and at least 1,300 deaths related to the virus. The number of cases has climbed since Texas began lifting stay-at-home orders May 1, but Abbott has defended the speed by emphasizing that hospitalizations have remained flat and infection rates have dropped since April.

President Donald Trump has claimed mail-in voting is ripe for fraud and “cheaters,” even as his reelection campaign and state allies are scrambling to launch operations meant to help their voters cast ballots in the mail. Other states have moved to expand absentee voting amid the coronavirus pandemic, including some controlled by Republicans, but Paxton has maintained that fear of getting the virus doesn’t qualify as a disability under the law.

Texas will hold primary runoff elections in July. Abbott has already expanded early voting for that election, which will decide the nominees in key congressional races and which Democrat will face Republican Sen. John Cornyn.

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Associated Press writer Jake Bleiberg in Dallas contributed to this report.

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