Texas ban on straight-ticket voting remains after federal appeals court ruling

Texas’ ban on straight-ticket voting will remain on the books after a slate of rulings from a federal appeals court found that the plaintiffs in three challenges to Texas’ election laws sued the wrong people.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that plaintiffs in three suits including the Texas NAACP and the League of Women Voters of Texas should have sued local election officials instead of the Texas secretary of state.
The ruling was 2-1 with the dissenting judge writing that the court was minimizing the secretary of state’s role in elections and that as the chief election official of Texas, the office does have standing in the cases.

The Texas Alliance of Retired Americans sued the Texas secretary of state in 2020 after a law took effect that banned straight-ticket voting — a practice that allowed voters to cast a ballot picking solely the candidates of the political party of their choice. State lawmakers approved a ban on straight-ticket or “one-punch” voting in 2017, but it did not take effect until 2020.

The alliance argued that the law violated voting rights because it would lengthen lines at the polls. The suit was filed amid concerns over social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A federal district court ruled in the group’s favor and issued an injunction that was quickly stayed by the 5th Circuit.

The panel ruled Wednesday that had it ruled against the ban on straight-ticket voting, the secretary of state’s office would have no authority to enforce the ruling because the office does not administer elections.

“If the official does not compel or constrain anyone to obey the challenged law, enjoining that official could not stop any ongoing constitutional violation,” the justices wrote.

Judges Stuart Kyle Duncan and Don Willett ruled in Texas’ favor. Judge Patrick Higginbotham dissented. Duncan and Willett were appointed by former President Donald Trump while Higginbotham was appointed by former President Ronald Reagan.

In his dissent to the rulings, Higginbotham wrote the secretary of state’s office should not have been granted immunity to the lawsuits and that the court has been splitting hairs on challenges similar to those brought by the secretary of state.

“Rather, we should have fully considered the merits of the plaintiffs’ arguments, especially where these cases also present claims under the Voting Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act, thin though they all may be,” he wrote.

In similar language, the 5th Circuit also ruled in Texas’ favor in a suit from the Texas NAACP, Voto Latino and the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans that challenged mail-in voting provisions related to voters paying postage to mail a ballot, signature verification and a rule in Texas election law that requires all mail-in ballots to be postmarked by 7 p.m. on the day of an election and received the following day. The suit also challenged a section in the law that made it a crime for someone to possess another person’s mail-in ballot.

The secretary of state sought dismissal of the suit on grounds that the office did not enforce those provisions, but a federal district judge denied the request, leading to the appeal to the 5th Circuit.

The third case was filed in 2019 by plaintiffs including the League of Women Voters of Texas, MOVE Texas Civic Fund and the Austin Justice Coalition. It also challenged signature verification rules that require election boards to match the signature on a mail-in ballot envelope with signatures on file at election offices.

Again a federal district court ruled against the secretary of state’s motion to dismiss the case and ruled partially in favor of the plaintiffs, ordering “detailed and lengthy” relief ahead of 2020′s election. The 5th Circuit stayed that ruling on appeal and on Wednesday officially reversed it.

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