Photo: Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer
Image 1 1
Charles Butt, the billionaire owner of the San Antonio-based grocery chain H-E-B, sent a letter to the Texas Supreme Court this week, siding with Harris County on its plan to send mail ballot applications to all registered voters ahead of the November election.
In the letter, Butt argued that Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan was permissible under the Texas Election Code.
“Clerk Hollins’s efforts to make absentee ballots widely available trusts voters, protecting those who are vulnerable from unnecessary exposure in this new Covid world in which we’re living,” Butt wrote. “It’s always been my impression that the more people who vote, the stronger our democracy will be.”
Hollins originally announced plans on Aug. 25 to send the applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in Harris County. The announcement immediately drew pushback from top Texas Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott, who claimed that the distribution of the ballots would lead to voter fraud.
Several legal battles ensued. On Monday, the Harris County GOP joined a lawsuit asking the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter. The same day, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Harris County in district court over the plan, asserting that “the Harris County clerk decided to knowingly violate election laws.”
On Tuesday, the clerk said his office would only send applications to registered voters 65 and over, who automatically qualify for mail ballots under state law. Hollins said he adjusted the plan pending resolution of the attorney general’s lawsuit.
On Wednesday, the Texas Supreme Court temporarily blocked the county from sending applications to all its voters. The outcome — only sending ballots to those 65 and older — was the same plan Hollins already had announced.
Texas voters are eligible for mail-in ballots if they are at least 65, have a disability, are out of the county or incarcerated during the voting period. The disability clause has been the subject of debate during the coronavirus pandemic. The Texas Supreme Court in May ruled that while the possibility of contracting the coronavirus alone is not enough to qualify for an absentee ballot, a person could be eligible by weighing the virus’ threat against their medical history.
Since county clerks and elections administrators in Texas lack a duty to vet mail ballot applications, voters effectively are left to decide for themselves whether they qualify. Nathan Hecht, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, reiterated that to the Houston Chronicle editorial board last month.
In a separate legal challenge before a federal appeals court this week, Texas Democrats argued that the state is discriminating against most voters by only allowing seniors to request a mail-in ballot without an excuse. They say that election law violates the 26th Amendment, which says the right to vote cannot be denied or abridged.
Harris county’s plan would not automatically distribute ballots to every Texan — only applications, which the voter would then have to fill out and submit after determining if they qualify. Voters can request an application for a mail ballot online, or even download the form in its entirety on the state’s website.
“Based on our experience at H-E-B, many people, including those of all ages, are nervous about contracting the virus,” Butt wrote. “By extension, in my opinion, many would be anxious about voting in person. Clerk Hollins has reasonably given these voters a chance to guard against perilous exposure in a manner consistent with this Court’s opinion and the Election Code.”
Butt previously has weighed in on political debates, and he is a top contributor during election cycles. His campaign contributions cross party lines.