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Lawmakers debate whether Texans who fear catching coronavirus should be allowed to vote by mail

Texas AG Ken Paxton argues being 'fearful of illness' isn't covered in the election code, but a state judge is looking to temporarily expand that provision.

HOUSTON — Should everyone have the option to vote by mail in this year's elections? It's a question being debated by lawmakers across that nation— and now, the discussion has made its way to the Lone Star state.

Residents and legislatures alike are concerned about the coronavirus possibly spreading at polling stations and precautionary measures are already being taken.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has postponed the May 26 primary runoff elections until July 14 and early voting to July 6-10. In the Houston area, Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman is asking residents 65 and older to vote by mail this summer.

But is that enough?

Texas 353rd Civil District Court Judge Tim Sulak recently announced he plans to issue a temporary injunction allowing all Texas residents fearful of catching the coronavirus the option to avoid polling stations and vote by mail. 

You'll still be able to vote in-person, but only if you want to.

The proposed injunction would expand on a Texas election code provision allowing persons with disabilities to use a mail ballot. Currently, mail voting is limited to Texas residents older than 65, residents outside the county, jailed residents who haven't been convicted and those with disabilities.

Texas Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton argues mail voting should be reserved for Texans suffering from actual medical problems or physical impediments. 

He stated in several correspondences this week that "fear of contracting COVID-19 does not qualify a person for disability" under the state election code.

Texas Sen. Beverly Powell, who has asked Paxton to reconsider, believes stopping the injunction will force residents to choose between safety and participating in elections.

Paxton is concerned opening the rule to people concerned about contracting the virus will open the elections up to fraud. If the judge moves forward, Paxton said he will file an appeal revoking the injunction. 

“I am disappointed that the district court ignored the plain text of the Texas Election Code to allow perfectly healthy voters to take advantage of special protections made available to Texans with actual illness or disabilities." Paxton said in a statement. "Mail ballots based on disability are specifically reserved for those who are legitimately ill and cannot vote in-person without needing assistance or jeopardizing their health."

In an informal letter of legal advice addressed to Rep. Stephanie Klick, the attorney general's office said legal action could be taken against officials advising voters to apply for a mail-in ballot solely because they're afraid of getting COVID-19. 

They stated "intentionally causes false information to be provided on an application for ballot by mail" is a criminal offense under the election code.

The attorney general's office has specified that a person sick from COVID-19 who cannot vote in-person without assistance, or without injury to their health, can apply for a mail ballot.

Texans must apply to vote by a mail ballot for the 2020 primary runoff elections before July 2. 

Call 713-755-6965 or visit HarrisVotes.com to make a request.

Other coronavirus stories on KHOU.com

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