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Texas Attorney General files appeal, seeks to stop straight ticket voting

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 9/27/2020 By Jacob Carpenter, Staff writer
Ken Paxton wearing a suit and tie: The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, pictured in April, filed a motion to stay and appeal Saturday following a federal judge’s order to reinstate straight ticket voting ahead of the Nov. 3 general election. © Tony Gutierrez, STF / Associated Press

The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, pictured in April, filed a motion to stay and appeal Saturday following a federal judge’s order to reinstate straight ticket voting ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.

The Texas Attorney General’s office filed an appeal and motion to stay Saturday following a federal judge’s order to reinstate straight ticket voting ahead of the November general election.

Lawyers representing the Texas Secretary of State argued that U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo erred when she ruled Friday that the elimination of straight ticket voting this year would illegally impede the ability of Texas residents to vote by causing long lines at the polls amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Attorney General’s office also argued the ruling came too late for elections officials to properly alter ballots.

“Eighteen days before in-person voting begins is insufficient time for election administrators in 254 counties and their vendors to meticulously re-program, re-proof, and re-test thousands of different ballot styles,” state officials wrote in their motion to stay.

State legislators voted in 2017 to repeal the use of straight ticket voting, a practice used by six other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. The vote fell largely along party lines, with Republicans backing the measure.

Supporters of the bill argued the law would force voters to make more informed decisions in races throughout the ballot. About three-quarters of Harris County voters chose a straight-ticket option in 2018.

Opponents of the legislation, however, said the measure aimed to reduce the voting power of Democrats, who have begun to benefit more from the practice in recent years. Straight ticket voting is more popular in larger, urban counties where dozens of races often appear on primary and general election ballots. In Harris County, about 55 percent of straight-ticket voters chose Democrats and 44 percent chose Republicans.

An amendment to the 2017 legislation caused a delay in its implementation until the 2020 general election.

Harris County officials and other election leaders across the state have warned that voters could take 15 minutes or more to complete the ballots in November, potentially setting the stage for long lines at the polls. Marmolejo said the added time at polling locations increases the risk of COVID-19 spread.

Some county elections officials have issued warnings that Marmolejo’s ruling came too late in the planning process. Marmolejo found that only in-person ballots must have a straight-ticket voting option.

It is not immediately clear how quickly the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will act or when Marmolejo might rule on the motion to stay.

The suit seeking to reinstate straight ticket voting was brought by the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans, the national senatorial and congressional committees of the Democratic Party, and Sylvia Bruni, chair of the Webb County Democratic Party.

Early voting can begin across the state on Oct. 13. Election Day is Nov. 3.

Taylor Goldenstein contributed to this report.

jacob.carpenter@chron.com

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