The Texas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Harris County, one of the largest in the country, cannot mail out applications for absentee ballots to all of its 2.4 million registered voters.
Wednesday's ruling is the latest blow for Democrats and voting rights groups who have pushed for Texas to expand vote-by-mail access amid the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans have blocked their efforts in favor of stricter measures that they argue ensure the integrity of the electoral process.
"We hold that the Election Code does not authorize an early-voting clerk to send an application to vote by mail to a voter who has not requested one and that a clerk's doing so results in irreparable injury to the State," the ruling says.
The court's decision blocks Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins from sending out applications for mail-in ballots to every registered voter in the county even if they may be ineligible for absentee voting, including in Houston, the state's largest city and a Democratic stronghold.
The court also reversed and remanded the lower court's decision, setting up a new trial. It also granted the state's petition for review.
To vote by mail in Texas, a resident needs to be 65 years or older, or sick or disabled, or in jail but otherwise eligible to vote. Voters who are out of the county during early voting or on Election Day can also register for mail-in voting. Eligible absentee voters in Texas have to fill out an application for a mail-in ballot and return it to their early voting clerk to then receive their ballot. The deadline in Texas to turn in applications to vote by mail is October 23.
Hollins over the summer sent applications to the nearly 377,000 registered voters 65 years of age or older in Harris County. He later announced in August he would mass mail out applications, prompting the Texas secretary of state's director of elections to send a letter arguing it will "confuse voters about their ability to vote by mail" and "could impede the ability of persons who need to vote by mail to do so" by clogging up the system.
"It is disappointing that the Court has sided with political forces seeking to limit voter access this November," Hollins said in a statement Wednesday. "Placing limitations on non-partisan outreach that educates citizens about their Constitutional right to vote should not be acceptable in a democracy."
Hollins argued that democracy requires him to ensure that "every registered voter has accurate, timely information about their voting options" especially amid the coronavirus pandemic when vote by mail is "the safest way" for Texans.
Added Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa, "Once again, the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court steps into this election against the interests of voters and a functioning democracy."
Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, however, celebrated the ruling, arguing in a statement that sending out the applications en masse would "jeopardize the security and integrity of our democratic process."
In a separate ruling Wednesday, the Texas Supreme Court sided with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in allowing his extension of early voting from two weeks to three weeks. He had been sued by some top Republicans in the state.
The list of prominent Republicans who filed the lawsuit includes GOP Chair Allen West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, and some members of the Texas legislature. They claimed Abbott's move violated election law that required early voting to start 17 days before Election Day.
In July, Abbott moved the early voting date up to October 13 from October 19 to allow more time to vote amid Covid-19 concerns. The governor's order also allowed voters to hand-deliver their mail-in ballots before Election Day.
"To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion," Chief Justice Nathan Hecht wrote in the opinion.
Other recent court rulings have limited no-excuse mail voting in Texas only to senior citizens. And Abbott is currently facing two challenges to his order earlier this month restricting ballot boxes to one per county in the sprawling state.
CNN's Dan Berman, Chris Boyette and Kelly Mena contributed to this report.