By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) – Texas counties will each be limited to a single site for voters to drop off their mail ballots ahead of Election Day, under a proclamation issued by Governor Greg Abbott on Thursday.
The order will close down more than a dozen satellite locations in at least two counties: Harris, which includes Houston, had opened 12 sites to collect early mail ballots, while Travis, which includes Austin, had four.
Texas is one of the few U.S. states that does not allow all voters to request absentee ballots without an excuse. Instead, only voters who are over the age of 65, have a disability, are confined to a jail or will be out of town on Election Day can vote by mail.
Earlier this year, both the state Supreme Court and a federal appeals court rejected efforts to extend mail voting to all Texans amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The Nov. 3 election includes the White House race between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden as well as federal, state and local contests.
In a nod to the outbreak, Abbott, a Republican, had issued an order in July allowing voters to submit mail ballots in advance, rather than only on Election Day, and extending early voting by several days. Thursday’s proclamation modified that order.
“As we work to preserve Texans’ ability to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take extra care to strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state,” Abbott said in a statement. “These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting.”
The decision drew immediate criticism from the chairman of the state Democratic Party, Gilberto Hinojosa, that Abbott was changing the rules at the last minute.
“Governor Abbott and Texas Republicans are scared,” he said in a statement. “We are creating a movement that will beat them at the ballot box on Nov. 3, and there’s nothing these cheaters can do about it.”
Texas, which has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in more than four decades, is seen as potentially competitive this year, though polls show Trump with a narrow lead.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Daniel Wallis)