The debate over mail-in voting in Texas has been growing louder during the COVID-19 pandemic as court battles at the federal and state levels illustrate how a largely partisan issue may play out this November.
On the one hand, proponents of expanding mail-in voting argue that allowing all Texas voters to vote by mail during the pandemic will help halt the spread of the coronavirus. Largely Democrats, the supporters also believe such an expansion would increase voter turnout across the state.
On the other hand, those against the expansion, primarily Republican lawmakers, have argued that mail balloting leads to increased opportunity for voter fraud. While mail-in voting is already allowed for some voters, evidence of fraud among those groups has been scarce.
Under current law, Texans can vote by mail under a number of circumstances: if they're going to be out of their home counties during early voting and on election day; if they're 65 years or older; if they are disabled; or if they're in jail but eligible to vote.
Exactly what makes a voter "disabled" is at the core of two major legal disputes playing out in Texas courts. While disabled voters can vote by mail, they are not required to actually describe their disability in their voter applications.
Under state law, mail-in voting is available to someone who "has a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter's health."
Those who want to see mail-in voting expanded to all voters during the pandemic have argued that the threat of infection at a polling place should meet this definition of disability and allow anyone to vote early by mail.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sits firmly on the other side of that argument, defending lawsuits in state court and federal court to prevent the expansion of absentee voting across the state. In all likelihood, the U.S. Supreme Court will be the final arbiter of expansion.
In state court, at both the district and appellate level, judges have agreed with such an expanded definition of "disability" under state election law. But the Texas Supreme Court heard an appeal last week that could overturn the rulings in the lower courts.
Meanwhile, a federal district judge in San Antonio also agreed that mail-in voting should be expanded. But likewise, that ruling has been appealed and currently sits in front of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which recently blocked the district judge's order that would have allowed the expansion.
The first elections affected by the parallel court cases could be the state's primary runoff elections, which are scheduled to take place July 14 with early voting beginning June 29. However, the real test will likely come in November when the state will hold its general election, which is much more likely to gain higher turnout, especially in a presidential election year.