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'Huge Victory for Texas Voters': Federal Judge Rules in Favor of 127,000 Drive-Thru Ballots

"This is what democracy looks like," said one ACLU lawyer. "Our justice system did its duty today to ensure voting rights are protected and our democracy remains intact."

Motorists queue at a drive-through voting station in Harris County, Texas on October 7, 2020. (Photo: Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

An election worker accepts ballots from voters in cars at a drive-through mail ballot drop-off site at NRG Stadium on October 7, 2020 in Houston, Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order limiting each county to one mail ballot drop-off site. (Photo: Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

In a blow to one of the many Republican attempts to stop people from voting across the country, a federal judge Monday afternoon struck down a GOP attempt to invalidate 127,000 ballots cast at drive-thru voting sites in Harris County, Texas. 

NPR reports U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen—a George W. Bush appointee—threw out the suit challenging the legality of the ballots, which were turned in by car at 10 sites throughout the Houston area in the Lone Star State's most populous county. 

"Voter suppression doesn't get much more blatant than this outrageous attempt to invalidate the votes of nearly 127,000 Texans," said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, in response to the decision. "We hope this ruling eliminates some of the anxiety and confusion so many Houstonians were feeling. This should allow the election to be decided by Texas voters and not by a small group of people trying to disrupt our democracy through litigation, suppression and confusion."

The decision came one day after the Texas Supreme Court denied a petition by a Republican activist and three GOP candidates in the state seeking to have the drive-thru votes tossed out for what they claimed was an illegal expansion of curbside voting—which under Texas law is only available for voters with disabilities—by Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, a Democrat.

County officials had set up the drive-through polling places in order to make voting easier and safer during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to local news station KTRK, about 10% of all early ballots have been cast by car.  

The GOP activist who filed the challenge, Steven Hotze, is no stranger to controversy. According to the Texas Tribune

Hotze is an active GOP donor and is one of the most prolific culture warriors on the right. He's a fierce opponent of same-sex marriage and was a key figure in the unsuccessful push for the 2017 "bathroom bill" in the Texas Legislature. This year, he has filed numerous lawsuits seeking to overturn Gov. Greg Abbott's coronavirus restrictions and block Harris County's efforts to make it easier for people to vote. And he left a voicemail for Abbott's chief of staff this summer telling him to shoot and kill people protesting the in-custody death of George Floyd.

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While voting rights advocates hailed the decision as a victory, Halen sounded a warning to any Harris County residents thinking of voting by car on Tuesday: "If I were to vote tomorrow, I would not vote in a drive-thru location out of concern about if it's legal or not," he said.

"I am looking at statue right here," the judge added. "On Election Day, they're supposed to vote in a building." 

Nevertheless, Andre Segura, legal director of the ACLU of Texas, applauded Halen's decision. 

"This is what democracy looks like," he said in a statement. "This is the third attempt by these individuals to throw out votes legally cast, and once again they've been denied. Our justice system did its duty today to ensure voting rights are protected and our democracy remains intact."

Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, called the ruling "a huge victory for Texas voters."

"The court was right to reject this outrageous attempt to undermine a true and accurate vote count and improperly influence the outcome of the election," she added. 

The failed Republican attempt is but one of many GOP voter suppression efforts around the country. Writing in the Washington Post on Sunday, Ben Ginsburg, one of the nation's most prominent conservative election lawyers, said that:

The Trump campaign and Republican entities engaged in more than 40 voting and ballot court cases around the country this year. In exactly none—zero—are they trying to make it easier for citizens to vote. In many, they are seeking to erect barriers. All of the suits include the mythical fraud claim. Many are efforts to disqualify absentee ballots, which have surged in the pandemic.

"This attempted disenfranchisement of voters cannot be justified by the unproven Republican dogma about widespread fraud," added Ginsberg. "Challenging voters at the polls or disputing the legitimacy of mail-in ballots isn't about fraud. Rather than producing conservative policies that appeal to suburban women, young voters or racial minorities, Republicans are trying to exclude their votes."

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