Federal judge in Texas rejects Republican challenge to drive-through voting

A federal judge in Texas on Monday rejected a Republican attempt to invalidate about 127,000 votes in this year’s presidential election because drive-through polling centers established during the coronavirus pandemic were used to cast ballots.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, ruled that a Republican activist and candidates who filed the lawsuit lacked standing and that drive-through voting could proceed with election day on Tuesday.

Republican activist Steve Hotze and three Republican candidates had sued Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins seeking to halt drive-through voting after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the manner of voting could proceed.

“We’re very grateful that we saved 127,000 votes from both parties,” said Richard Mithoff, an attorney for Harris County, said after the ruling as he stood with Hollins and other Texas Democrats outside the federal courthouse in downtown Houston.

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Hollins said his staff of 11,000 election workers stood ready to count the 127,000 drive-through votes that had been cast early “fair and square.” Republicans had asked the courts to block officials from counting the votes until legal claims were resolved.

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins speaks outside the federal courthouse after a hearing in Houston.

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins speaks outside the federal courthouse after a hearing in Houston. A federal judge has rejected a last-ditch Republican effort to invalidate nearly 127,000 votes in Houston.

(David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

Hollins said that drive-through voting would continue on election day at 10 sites, in addition to in-person voting at more than 800 polling places. More than 1 million registered voters in the county still have not cast ballots, he said.

“They will have the same access to the polls that their neighbors have had,” Hollins said. “…We’re proud to be upholding democracy at a time when it is under attack.”

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Hollins said the case was the latest in nearly a dozen lawsuits brought by Texas Republicans to block expanded voter access.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott last month limited every county to a single drop site for mailed votes, forcing Harris County to close 11 additional sites and voters to drive several hours to drop off their ballots. Republicans also successfully sued to block Harris County from mailing ballots to all those eligible unless they requested them.

Republicans appealed Hanen’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Mithoff said.

At stake in the drive-through voting legal battle are nearly 9% of total votes cast in the country’s third most populous county. Those votes could be key with Texas considered a battleground state in the election featuring President Trump, a Republican, against former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat.

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Hollins opened drive-through voting sites this year as part of an effort to expand early polling places and make them safer during the pandemic. Republicans who sued argued drive-through voting was offered illegally and strategically in areas with large numbers of Democrats. Curbside voting at the county’s polling places has been limited to disabled voters, while drive-through voting this year was available to all.

Demonstrators stand across the street from the federal courthouse in Houston

Demonstrators stand across the street from the federal courthouse in Houston, Monday, before a hearing in federal court involving drive-thru ballots cast in Harris County.

(David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

Houston Attorney David Hobbs, 37, who joined the lawsuit with his pregnant wife after both voted drive-through on the first day of early voting Oct. 13, emerged from court relieved.

“Votes should be protected. That’s what a democracy is,” said Hobbs, whose wife gave birth to twin girls Friday and was discharged from the hospital Sunday.

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Peter Nasser, 60, a retired bond trader who voted drive-through, was protesting outside the courthouse “to protect my vote.”

“They’re scared to death of losing Texas,” Nasser, a Democrat who voted for Biden, said of Republicans.

Nearby, Gina Dusterhoft, 61, a retired motorcycle dealer and registered Democrat, held a sign that said, “127,000 Harris County votes matter. Houston strong. End voter suppression.”

Dusterhoft, who lives in the suburb of Cypress, said democracy won.

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“Knowing we can have drive-through voting tomorrow is icing on the cake, she said.