Local officials in Texas say they plan to fight a new order from Gov. Greg Abbott to limit the number of places where voters can hand deliver mail-in ballots.
Abbott announced the order Thursday, the same day local election officials opened the drop-off sites.
Starting Friday, Abbott said in a statement, "mail ballots that are delivered in person by voters who are eligible to vote by mail must be delivered to a single early voting clerk's office location as publicly designated by a county's early voting clerk."
Abbott said the order was an effort to enhance "ballot security protocols" for mail-in ballots, though he offered no evidence having multiple sites would affect the security of these ballots.
"The State of Texas has a duty to voters to maintain the integrity of our elections," Abbott said in his statement. "As we work to preserve Texans' ability to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take extra care to strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state. These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting."
In Travis County, home to the state capital of Austin, county Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir had set up four sites for voters to hand deliver their ballots. She called the order "most unfortunate" and said she plans to "challenge the governor" and his effort to close three of those sites.
"I don't know what is going to happen to the governor's order until we get to the point that I can talk about it in court," she said. "In the meantime, I am still going to listen to what the county attorney tells me is the appropriate thing for the county clerk to do. And that is what we will follow."
Harris County, home to Houston, planned 12 ballot drop-off sites. County Clerk Chris Hollins, a Democrat, says the change will "result in widespread confusion and voter suppression."
While most states have made it easier to vote by mail this year amid the pandemic, Texas has held out and stuck with some of the most stringent rules for getting an absentee ballot in the country. Still, an unprecedented number of Texans are expected to vote by mail, particularly those who are disabled, over 65 or in one of the other limited categories the state allows.
In past presidential elections, DeBeauvoir said, her office received an average of 27,000 applications for mail-in ballots. So far this year, it has received 71,000 applications, she said.
Concerns over potential USPS issues handling the increase in mail-in ballots forced local election officials in populous counties to come up with more options for people planning to vote by mail in the upcoming election.
These hand-delivery sites, or in-person drop-off sites, were among the solutions.
DeBeauvoir said Abbott's sudden disapproval of these sites is "targeted" at urban counties, which tend to be heavily Democratic.
"This is a deliberate attempt to manipulate the election," she said. "If the governor was truly worried about this, he could have stopped this program more than a month ago or contacted the urban counties that are all doing the same thing Travis County is doing."
In response to the governor's order, Texas Democrats called Republicans "cheaters."
"Republicans are on the verge of losing, so Gov. Abbott is trying to adjust the rules last minute," Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. "Governor Abbott and Texas Republicans are scared. We are creating a movement that will beat them at the ballot box on November 3, and there's nothing these cheaters can do about it."
While the state has long been a Republican stronghold, polls show the race between President Trump and Democrat Joe Biden to be extremely close. Democrats are hoping to make substantial gains in both U.S. House and state legislative races this fall.
Austin's lone Democratic congressman, Lloyd Doggett, called Abbott's order an "outrageous act of voter suppression" aimed at affecting the election.
"This sabotage is not about election security," he said in a statement, "it is about Republican political insecurity. With over a month to return your ballot, voting by mail remains the safest way to participate."
Houston Public Media reporter Andrew Schneider contributed to this story.