COURIER Illustration / Denzel Boyd
COURIER Illustration / Denzel Boyd

Judges rule 2-to-1 that the state can require an “official” excuse beyond avoiding coronavirus for people under age 65 to vote by mail.

Some Texas voters might be prohibited from voting by mail in the upcoming election, after a federal appeals court ruled the Lone Star state can require younger voters to have an “official” excuse to mail in a ballot during the coronavirus pandemic.

The US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2-1 decision that the Texas Election Code can place restrictions on voters under 65 from voting by mail.  Texas Democrats challenged state officials in court, saying the law is an act of age discrimination.

“The record indicates Texas is taking the kinds of precautions for voting used in other endeavors during the pandemic,” Judge Leslie Southwick wrote in the majority opinion. “None of them guarantees protection. There are quite reasonable concerns about voting in person, but the state’s mandating that many voters continue to vote in that way does not amount to an absolute prohibition of the right to vote.”

In Texas, eligible voters under the age of 65 must provide an eligible reason or “qualifying disability” for their absence on Election Day. The state said concerns about contracting the coronavirus amid the COVID-19 pandemic will not count as an official excuse.

Southwick argues younger voters with chronic illness or underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk of contracting the virus are still permitted to vote by mail per the state’s election code.

Judge Carl Stewart, the sole judge dissenting the ruling, argued the COVID-19 pandemic made the state’s voting-by-mail rules a violation of the 26th Amendment, which states that “the right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.” 

In the ruling, he wrote that Texas voters who are not prohibited from voting by mail now “have less opportunity to participate than others.” He said the voting-by-mail law “fails to treat members of the electorate equally with regard to mail-in voting. This unequal treatment is discriminatory in normal times and dangerous in the time of a global pandemic.”

Texas is one of 17 states requiring votes to have an eligible excuse or to vote by mail. In addition to Texas, these states are Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee. 

Typically, eligible reasons to request a mail-in ballot are if the voter is out-of-state, ill, disabled, in the military, or adhere to religious observances forbidding them from participating in secular activities, including voting on Election Day. 

In response to the pandemic, some states are taking steps to allow exceptions for their voting-by-mail rules. For instance, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order allowing all eligible voters in New York to vote by mail for the Nov. 3 General Election. Some states, like Connecticut and Delaware, are providing mail-in ballots to all eligible voters and have, or will be, allowing people to list the pandemic as a legitimate excuse.

But states like Alabama and Louisiana are not lifting voting-by-mail restrictions, even as the coronavirus pandemic inches closer to 200,000 total deaths in the United States. After Donald Trump complained that some people are using the coronavirus pandemic as a “scam” to push for mail-in voting, Alabama Secretary of State John Merril reassured the president that his state would continue to impose harsh restrictions on that voting-by-mail.

Trump has criticized mail-in voting for several months, often resorting to spreading falsehoods about potential voter fraud. The evidence proves the contrary—a study revealed that out of millions of mail-in ballots cast from 2000 to 2012, only six cases were found of voter impersonation. Other studies also determined that mail-in voting does not favor one political party or candidate over the other.

As reported by COURIER’s Elle Meyers, several research studies found voting-by-mail options can increase voter turnout. In Genesee County, Michigan, voter turnout increased by 45% in the state’s primary election. According to Stanford University research, mail-in voting also allows voters to become more confident and informed in their voting choices, since it will enable them more time to research candidates and issues.

As of Monday, the Center for Disease Control reports that there are more than 6.4 million coronavirus cases and 193,195 total deaths in the United States. As the total case and death count continues to increase, more Americans are looking to mail-in voting options. In April, Pew Research found that nearly 70% of Americans favor no-excuse requirements to vote by mail. According to a new NBC poll, some Americans have already said they are committed to voting early or by mail. Fifty-two percent of American adults said they would vote early or by mail.

To find out your states absentee and mail-in ballot rules, click here.