Federal judge rules against late attempt to toss out 127,000 drive-thru ballots in Harris County

An election official directs a car to a spot at the Humble Civic Center's drive-thru voting location. (Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)
An election official directs a car to a spot at the Humble Civic Center's drive-thru voting location. (Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)

An election official directs a car to a spot at the Humble Civic Center's drive-thru voting location. (Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)

A federal district court judge rejected a lawsuit Nov. 2 seeking to have nearly 127,000 ballots cast at drive-thru voting locations in Harris County thrown out.

The lawsuit—filed Oct. 28 by conservative activist Steven Hotze and several Republican candidates up for election in Harris County—argued drive-thru voting constituted an illegal expansion of curbside voting under Texas Election Code.

In addition to having ballots tossed, the suit requested all drive-thru voting sites be shut down in Harris County on Election Day. In his Nov. 1 ruling, District Court Judge Andrew Hanen also denied that request.

The drive-thru voting locations were set up by the Harris County Clerk's Office for the November election to provide what officials said was a safer voting option for voters who are concerned about the coronavirus. The county tested the concept with a pilot program that was in effect during July runoff elections, and 10 drive-thru voting locations were opened to voters at the start of early voting Oct. 13.

Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins, the defendant in the case, argued throwing the ballots out at this point would amount to broad voter disenfranchisement as the county would not be able to warn every voter who cast a drive-thru ballot that they would need to vote again on Election Day.

In court filings submitted Nov. 1, lawyers with the clerk's office said there was no justification for the plaintiffs to have waited until ballots had already been cast before seeking to have them thrown out, noting the use of drive-thru voting was announced months ago with approval from the Texas secretary of state. The 127,000 ballots cast at drive-thru locations constitute a little less than 9% of the 1.4 million ballots cast so far in Harris County.

In a statement, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the Nov. 2 ruling validated the county's efforts to provide safe, secure voting opportunities during the pandemic.

"It is beyond comprehension that anyone would seek to invalidate 127,000 votes legally cast by voters," Hidalgo said. "While we fully expect more appeals and litigation from those seeking to suppress the voices of our citizens, we will continue our fight to zealously protect the sanctity of each and every ballot cast here in Harris County."

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said the lawsuit was "shameful" and "should never have seen the light of day."

"The ruling to let the nearly 127,000 drive-thru votes stand was the correct decision but it doesn’t change a simple fact: This should have never been an issue in the first place," he said in a statement. "Texans who lawfully voted at drive through locations should have never had to fear that their votes wouldn’t be counted and their voices wouldn’t be heard."

The plaintiffs in the case had a similar lawsuit rejected by the Texas Supreme Court on Nov. 1. County officials said they expect the ruling to be appealed. In his ruling, Hanen called for ballots cast at drive-thru locations to be segregated in case their validity is struck down by a higher court following an appeal.

This post will be updated as more information becomes available.
By Shawn Arrajj
Shawn Arrajj serves as the editor of the Cy-Fair edition of Community Impact Newspaper where he covers the Cy-Fair and Jersey Village communities. He mainly writes about development, transportation and issues in Harris County.


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