WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that the state's Republican governor may limit drop-off sites for election ballots, in a political win for U.S. President Donald Trump days before the Nov. 3 election.
The ruling reverses an appeals court decision on Friday that said Governor Greg Abbott could not limit drop-off sites to one per county.
Nearly 8 million Texans had cast ballots as of Tuesday, approaching 90% of the entire 2016 vote - a higher percentage than any state in the country, according to the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida.
Texas voters must qualify to vote by mail by, for example, being older than 65, being ill or disabled, or not being present in their voting county during the early voting period through Election Day.
The coronavirus pandemic has prompted hundreds of lawsuits across the United States over how people can cast their ballots.
"The plaintiffs complain that limiting early hand-deliveries of mail-in ballots to one office per county requires more travel time for some voters. But this ignores the other options for casting their ballots that these voters have," the court wrote. The three justices who issued the decision are Republicans.
Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said the ruling showed that the "Texas Supreme Court continues to bend the law in any which way to secure Republican political power," adding that "four outstanding democratic women" are running for positions on the state supreme court this year.
A Democratic candidate has not won the state of Texas in more than four decades, and Trump won there by nine percentage points in 2016.
But with simmering dissatisfaction over Trump's handling of the pandemic, opinion polls suggest Texas may be in reach for Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
On Oct. 1, Abbott issued an order that limited the drop-off sites to one per county, which voters and civil rights groups said created hurdles in voting access for the elderly, disabled and people who lived in cities. The order applied equally to small counties and large ones such as Harris County, home to the city of Houston, which has 2.4 million registered voters.
Myrna Perez, director of the voting rights and elections program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan public policy institute which represented the groups challenging Abbott’s order, said she had no plans to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The Texas Supreme Court has had its say and now it's time for the voters in Texas to have theirs," Perez said.
A Texas appeals court on Friday had ruled that limits on the number of drop boxes would increase the risk that voters could be infected with COVID-19 and would infringe on their right to vote.
Trump, a Republican, has repeatedly railed against mail ballots, saying, without evidence, that they will lead to widespread fraud.
On Oct. 15, Judge Tim Sulak said Abbott's limitation on ballot drop-off sites "would likely needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections, and needlessly and unreasonably substantially burden voters' constitutionally protected rights to vote."
(Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Grant McCool)
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