The eight Republican justices of the Texas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the clerk of the state's most populous county cannot send out applications for mail-in ballots to all 2.4 million registered voters.
The court ruled that Chris Hollins, the Democratic clerk of Harris County, had overstepped his legal authority by seeking to send applications to all registered voters, even if they were not eligible to vote by mail under state law.
Texas law only allows people to vote by mail if they are older than 65, if they will be absent on Election Day, if they have a disability, if they are in jail, or if they are crime victims with confidential addresses.
Hollins had sent out applications to voters over 65 in Harris County, which covers the city of Houston and is considered an important Democratic stronghold, but had been trying to send them to all voters — an estimated 1.7 million more applications — in case they too were eligible.
Two lower courts had ruled he could do so, but the highest court in Texas disagreed.
"Mass-mailing unsolicited ballot applications to voters ineligible to vote by mail cannot be said to be necessary or indispensable to the conduct of early voting," the court ruled.
"This year’s election process is occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic," the justices wrote Wednesday, "but Hollins has not explained why or how the pandemic has rendered inadequate the usual distribution of ballot applications on request, much less made mass mailings of unsolicited ballot applications necessary or indispensable to voting by mail."
In a statement, Hollins said the court had ruled in favor of voter suppression.
“It is disappointing that the Court has sided with political forces seeking to limit voter access this November,” said Hollins. “Placing limitations on non-partisan outreach that educates citizens about their Constitutional right to vote should not be acceptable in a democracy.
Democrats in Texas decried the decision as anti-democratic and urged supporters to vote out the four justices up for reelection this year.
"Republicans will bend the 'law' any which way to serve their purpose: maintain power for Republicans no longer supported by a majority of the state," state party chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.
Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, issued a proclamation to shutter all but one drop-off location for completed mail-in ballots in each of Texas's 254 counties, making it more difficult to securely vote by mail. In Harris County, that meant the closure of 11 drop-off locations the county had set up.
At the national level, Republicans have waged a broad legal battle against voting by mail during the pandemic.
Texas Democrat Beto O'Rourke, who made an unsuccessful run for his party's nomination, has urged Biden to campaign aggressively there before Election Day.
"If Texas turns blue that night, and its 38 electoral votes go to Biden, then Trump would have no viable path to victory, and the election would be over that night," O'Rourke wrote this week for the Washington Post.
Harris County clerk staff said Monday they had so far sent out almost 230,000 mail ballots, of which almost 2,200 had already been returned.