Restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with record-breaking voter turnout, have forced state and local officials nationwide to figure out ways to ensure access to the polls. In Harris County, Texas, which includes the city of Houston, county officials promoted 10 drive-through voting centers. Now Texas Republicans are waging a legal battle to get nearly 127,000 ballots tossed out, claiming the drive-through sites violate state election code.
On Oct. 31, a coalition of faith groups worked together to launch a sign-on letter calling on faith leaders to condemn the effort to toss the ballots, saying counting every vote “matters in the eyes of our state, our country, and our God.” The sign-on process is hosted by Vote Common Good, a national organization encouraging Christian voters to vote Trump out.
“As Christians, and as Texans, we believe everyone is created ‘imago Dei’ – in the image of God, with equal dignity and worth,” opens the letter. “And in Texas, equal dignity and worth applies to the voting booth.”
As of Sunday evening, more than 230 Texas faith leaders had signed on, including Bishop T.D. Jakes; Deborah Fikes, director of public engagement for the World Evangelical Alliance; Bishop Eleazar Rodriguez; and author and speaker Jen Hatmaker
“You try to get 230 faith leaders in Texas to sign on to anything, and in one night on a weekend, between Halloween night and Nov.1,” says Doug Pagitt, executive director of Vote Common Good. “You can't get a hold of 230 faith voters. But they respond to this because they know that it's so counter to the very things that sit at the heart of the American imagination.”
Conservative activist Steven Hotze and Texas Republicans last week filed two legal efforts to get the ballots, which amount to about 10 percent of the total early voting ballots from Harris County, disqualified. In their complaints, they argue that drive-through voting violates Texas’s existing election law.
On Sunday, the Texas Supreme Court rejected one of the legal challenges, but on Monday morning, a federal judge is scheduled to hear the complaint from Hotze. At Monday’s emergency hearing, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen will also consider a request from Democratic organizations and U.S. Senate candidate MJ Hegar (D) to join the case in support of drive-through voting.
“It shouldn't be controversial to stand up for voting rights. It shouldn't be hard to vote in America in 2020, even with a pandemic,” says Adam Phillips, executive director of Faith2020, a multi-faith organization working to turn out religious voters in support of the Biden/Harris ticket. “So to have what was 120,000-plus Texans that played by the rules have their votes threatened to be thrown out is scandalous in America in 2020.”
The drive-through voting program was announced months in advance of the election process, but the first complaint wasn’t filed until hours before Texas’s first day of early voting. A similar lawsuit was tossed out by the Texas Supreme Court earlier in October.
Harris County, Texas’s most populous county and the third most populous nationally, is home to Houston, which regularly ranks as one of the most diverse cities in America. The individuals behind the complaint are conservative activist Steven Hotze, state Rep. Steve Toth of The Woodlands, congressional candidate Wendell Champion, and judicial candidate Sharon Hemphill. Toth, Champion, and Hemphill are all on the Nov. 3 ballot.
The suit has outraged many across the aisle. Former Texas House Speaker and Republican Joe Straus called it “patently wrong” in a statement on social media: “While it may be too late for this election, the Republican Party needs to return to a place where we win with ideas and persuasion rather than trying to intimidate and silence our fellow citizens.”
Phillips of Faith2020 is concerned this shows we may be seeing a repeat of 2000’s contested presidential election; however, he remains hopeful that the organizing of faith communities during this election may stave off such a conflict.
“I think there could be a real powerful healing moment, 20 years later, to see our democratic institutions prevail,” he says. “We don't need another contested election all the way to the Supreme Court — especially now.”