U.S. Democrats dealt blows in Georgia and Texas voting-rights cases

(Reuters) – Democrats were dealt a blow in U.S. legal cases challenging voting rules in Georgia and Texas as people cast early votes with just three weeks to go in the presidential campaign.

In Texas, where in-person voting started on Tuesday, a federal appeals court reinstated an order from Republican Governor Greg Abbott limiting absentee ballot drop-off sites to only one per county, despite opposition from Democrats and voting-rights advocates.

A U.S. district judge in Georgia ruled against Democrats who proposed easing long lines to vote by requiring changes including reallocating voting machines and providing backup paper ballots. The decision came after hours-long lines were reported on Monday, the first day of early voting in Georgia.

Voting by mail and early voting are surging ahead of the Nov. 3 election as voters avoid waiting in lines at polling places during the coronavirus pandemic. Nationally, more than 10 million votes have already been cast, a record-shattering pace, according to data compiled by the U.S. Elections Project.

President Donald Trump, a Republican, trails in most national polls behind his Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that mail ballots will lead to fraud. Experts have dismissed that assertion given that there has been virtually no voter fraud and a long history of mail voting in U.S. elections.

Republicans and Democrats have been engaged in a multistate legal battle over the rules governing mail-in ballots, including drop boxes.

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TEXAS

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late Monday put on hold a lower court ruling that had blocked the Texas governor’s order on ballot drop-off sites from taking effect, saying the decision would not hinder Texans from exercising their right to vote.

The ruling means more than a dozen satellite locations in at least two counties will remain shut down: Harris, which includes Houston and more than 4 million residents, had set up 12 locations, while Travis, which includes Austin, had four.

Abbott on Twitter wrote, “Critics were clearly clueless about the legality of my action and simply voiced prejudicial political opinions.”

Gilberto Hinojosa, the chair of the Texas Democratic Party, said, “It’s no surprise that Republicans would use the courts to muffle the voice of the rising Texas electorate … The only way to stop voter suppression is to come out in record numbers and vote.”

Texas is one of a few states that does not allow all residents to vote by mail. Only voters who are over 65, away from home on Election Day, ill, disabled or in jail are permitted to do so.

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In light of the pandemic, Abbott signed an order this summer allowing voters to submit absentee ballots ahead of Election Day, a first for the state. He subsequently issued a second proclamation limiting counties to a single drop-off site, citing the potential for fraud.

The appeals court said the two orders, taken together, represent an expansion, not a restriction, of the right to vote, since Texas typically allows voters to bring mail ballots in person only on Election Day.

“How this expansion of voting opportunities burdens anyone’s right to vote is a mystery,” the unanimous three-judge panel wrote. All three judges were nominated to the court by Trump.

GEORGIA

In Georgia, long lines were reported after first-day glitches including a software problem in voting machines that delayed voting.

Before the election began, Democrats pressed a court case that would have required poll workers to monitor wait times, stockpile backup ballots and re-allocate voting machines to minimize wait times, among other changes.

But the court said that the Democrats who brought the case had failed to prove that long lines were guaranteed or that the measures they were proposing would be necessary.

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