Keith Ingram, director of elections for the secretary of state, sent a letter to Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins on Aug. 27 directing him to "immediately halt any plan to send an application for ballot by mail to all registered voters and announce its retraction."
Sending applications to all registered voters would confuse voters and may cause voters who are not eligible to vote by mail to provide false information on the form, Ingram wrote in the letter. Under state law, only certain voters are eligible to vote by mail, including voters age 65 and older, disabled voters, voters who will be outside of Harris County for all of the early voting period and on Election Day, and voters who are in jail but otherwise eligible to vote.
"An official application from your office will lead many voters to believe they are allowed to vote by mail, when they do not qualify," Ingram wrote.
The Harris County Clerk's Office first announced its plans to send mail ballot applications to all registered voters on Aug. 25. Coupled with the announcement was additional information explaining who is eligible to vote by mail under state law.
In a statement responding to Ingram's letter, Hollins said guidance on who can vote by mail would be included with the mail ballot applications his office sends out.
In a decision from the Texas Supreme Court earlier this year, justices affirmed fear of COVID-19 did not constitute a disability under state law but also said voters can decide for themselves whether they qualify as disabled, which Hollins also acknowledged in his statement.
"Along with mail ballot applications, my office will include detailed guidance to inform voters that they may not qualify to vote by mail and to describe who does qualify based on the recent Texas Supreme Court decision," he said. "Voters will, of course, make their own decisions about if they qualify to vote by mail. Providing more information and resources to voters is a good thing, not a bad thing."
The move to send applications to all registered voters is part of a larger effort in Harris County as election officials prepare for what could be record-breaking voter turnout in the November election in the middle of a pandemic. Hollins secured an additional investment of $17 million from the Harris County Commissioners Court on Aug. 25 that will be used to hire 12,000 poll workers, bulk up vote-by-mail infrastructure, dramatically expand the number of polling locations and establish drive-thru voting opportunities at a handful of polling places.
Hollins has previously encouraged those eligible to use mail voting, arguing it can help keep people safe during the coronavirus pandemic while also lessening the crowds and lines for those who vote in person. Hollins has asked Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to extend the deadline for when his office can receive mail ballots and suggested to county commissioners that they consider opening new clerk offices prior to the election, which he said would provide voters with more locations at which they can drop off mail ballots.
In his letter, Ingram said Harris County must issue a retraction of its application mailing plan by noon Aug. 31, at which point he said he would ask Attorney General Ken Paxton to step in. Hollins said his office has engaged the secretary of state's office to continue the conversation.
"We have already responded to the Secretary of State's Office offering to discuss the matter with them," Hollins said.