The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on Thursday blocked a lower court’s order that would have allowed Texans to vote by mail rather than in person in an effort to avoid the risk of COVID-19 exposure.
The decision comes after a lower court ruled that voters under 65 years old who lacked immunity to the novel coronavirus had a disability that qualified them for mail-in voting under the Texas Election Code.
The Texas Election Code (Section 82.002) provides that a voter has a disability that qualifies them for mail-in voting if “the voter has a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place … without a risk of … injuring the voter’s health.”
The Texas Democratic Party, which brought this suit against the Governor, Secretary of State and Attorney General of Texas, argued in its complaint that a lack of immunity to COVID-19 was a disability that qualified voters in Texas for mail-in voting. The state officials, on the other hand, argued that, without a qualifying sickness or physical condition, a lack of immunity and a fear of contracting the virus do not constitute a disability for purposes of receiving a ballot by mail.
The party also argued that the Texas Election Code’s requirements for eligibility for mail-in voting discriminated based on age by allowing mail-in voting for voters of 65 years of age or older and not for those younger, especially during the pandemic.
Although the lower court ruled in favor of the Democratic Party, the court of appeals sided Thursday with the state officials and blocked the lower court’s order.
The Fifth Circuit held that requiring that state officials institute mail-in voting just a few days before elections begin would cause “significant, irreparable harm’ to the state.
As to the age discrimination claim, the court of appeals held that it was reasonable for the state of Texas to allow the elderly, who are “more likely to face everyday barriers to movement,” and have a greater risk of dying from the coronavirus, to vote by mail and not extend the same privilege to people under 65 years of age.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised the court’s decision, saying, “allowing universal mail-in ballots, which are particularly vulnerable to fraud, would only lead to greater election fraud and disenfranchise lawful voters.”
On the other hand, Gilberto Hinojosa, the Texas Democratic Party chair, expressed his disapproval of the court’s ruling, which, to him, essentially requires people under 65 years of age to choose between their health and their right to vote.
For more on COVID-19, see our special coverage.