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Texas Voters Are Caught In The Middle Of A Battle Over Mail-In Voting


States throughout the country have expanded voting by mail due to the pandemic but not Texas. As Ashley Lopez of member station KUT reports, voters there are caught in the middle of a messy legal fight over mail-in ballots.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Leslie Riddel is a 62-year-old self-described former smoker who lives in Austin. She's been self-isolating since early March and, in general, has been taking the pandemic pretty seriously. And several weeks ago, she started thinking about upcoming elections, including one in July. And Riddel came to the conclusion that she should look into voting by mail.

LESLIE RIDDEL: I realized a while back that things were not going to be back to normal anytime soon. So I better get on this and make sure I have this taken care of so that I can vote.

LOPEZ: So Riddel started doing some research. Texas currently has some of the strictest policies about vote by mail in the country. It's mostly only available to people who are over 65, out of town or disabled. And Riddel says she looked up what disability means in the Texas election code.

RIDDEL: And it says if a person has a physical condition and if I go to the polling place - I don't have the exact words in front of me - but that it would lead to injury to my health or it would injure my health.

LOPEZ: And Riddel says that's exactly her situation. She doesn't have immunity to COVID and she's over 60 and smoked most of her life. Riddel says it's clear to her that this applies to her, which is why she applied for a mail-in ballot weeks ago.

RIDDEL: And that's how I see it.

LOPEZ: But Texas officials don't see it that way. They argue voters have plenty of time to vote in-person during early voting. The state's Attorney General Ken Paxton also says the disability category for a mail-in ballot only applies to people with, quote, "actual disabilities that render them unable to vote in person." He's even threatened to prosecute voters. Here's Paxton during a recent interview about this on MSNBC.


KEN PAXTON: Obviously, if we find out somebody has voted by mail and they've done it, fraudulently, my job - just like the Michigan secretary of state talked about prosecuting voter fraud, you know, my job is exactly the same.

LOPEZ: Paxton has a long history of prosecuting people for alleged voting crimes in the state, which critics say is part of a larger effort to intimidate voters. Tommy Buser-Clancy with the ACLU of Texas says these threats amount to voter suppression.

TOMMY BUSER-CLANCY: It's in line with Attorney General Ken Paxton's overall view that it should be harder and scarier to vote.

LOPEZ: Buser-Clancy says voters should be seeking information from the local election officials in Texas who actually administer mail-in ballots. But even they're in a weird position. Right now, there are several lawsuits working through the courts. So far, many of the court orders contradict each other. Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir in Austin says she's been hearing from a lot of confused voters.

DANA DEBEAUVOIR: I do regret that they have been placed in that situation. That's most unfortunate.

LOPEZ: But DeBeauvoir says when voters ask if they should apply for a mail-in ballot for elections this year, there's only so much she can actually say.

DEBEAUVOIR: And I think the simplest thing we say to voters is, it's a sworn statement. It's your sworn statement, and nothing in the law has changed at all right now.

LOPEZ: But, again, this largely depends on how voters look at the existing law. Local election officials can't ask or investigate why someone is seeking a mail-in ballot, so the risk of possible prosecution is all on voters for now. Leslie Riddel in Austin says she's not worried. If the state attorney general wants to prosecute her for seeking a mail-in ballot, she says bring it on.

RIDDEL: He can prosecute me, and I will stand my case. I feel I am in the right. I feel I'm in the right. That's all there is to it.

LOPEZ: And it's likely Riddel isn't the only voter willing to face prosecution instead of potentially risking their health at a polling site. Dana DeBeauvoir says the number of people recently seeking mail-in ballots in Austin is off the charts.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Lopez joined KUT in January 2016. She covers politics and health care, and is part of the NPR-Kaiser Health News reporting collaborative. Previously she worked as a reporter at public radio stations in Louisville, Ky.; Miami and Fort Myers, Fla., where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.