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Judge signals easing Texas mail-in voting rules amid virus

AUSTIN, Texas — A judge Wednesday moved toward lifting Texas’ restrictions on voting by mail, which President Donald Trump has taken a hard line against even as states controlled by Republicans make it more widely available during the coronavirus pandemic.

Texas has not been one of them. But state District Judge Tim Sulak of Austin said he was inclined to side with Democrats who sued to at least temporarily expand access to mail-in voting in Texas, which under normal circumstances is generally limited by law to those 65 or older or those with a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents them from casting a ballot in person.

Sulak, who didn’t immediately issue an order but signaled it was forthcoming, imagined the dilemma facing voters during a hearing that was held over video conference because of coronavirus restrictions. He said he could see voters facing a choice — vote in person despite the dangers posed by COVID-19, or “Do I risk it and hope that it comes out OK?”

The state is expected to appeal the decision.

“Common sense and the spirit of the law won over the attorney general’s inexplicable stance that voters’ susceptibility to COVID-19 isn’t a physical condition under the law today,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, an attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project.

Texas was originally scheduled to have primary runoff elections next week, but Republican Gov. Greg Abbott moved the date to July.

Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had defended the state’s current restrictions earlier Wednesday in a letter to a GOP lawmaker. He also warned that anyone encouraging Texas voters to apply for a mail-in ballot during the pandemic could face prosecution.

“Mail ballots based on disability are specifically reserved for those who are physically ill and cannot vote in-person as a result. Fear of contracting COVID-19 does not amount to a sickness or physical condition as required by the Legislature,” Paxton said in a statement.

Trump has claimed without evidence that expanding mail-in voting will increase voter fraud. But Republican state officials in Iowa, Ohio and West Virginia have all taken steps to ease access to mail-in ballots, following health officials’ warnings that voting in person can risk transmission of the deadly virus.

Nebraska’s Republican governor has also urged voters to apply for absentee ballots, and Florida’s GOP chairman says the party will continue to run a robust vote-by-mail program.

Trump’s hard line appears to be driven by his personal suspicions and concerns about his own reelection prospects. Statewide mail-in voting “doesn’t work out well for Republicans,” he tweeted last week without explanation.