DALLAS (AP) -- The Texas Supreme Court on Sunday denied a Republican-led petition to toss nearly 127,000 ballots cast at drive-thru voting places in the Houston area.
The state's all-Republican high court rejected the request from GOP activists and candidates without explaining its decision. The effort to have the Harris County ballots thrown out is still set to be taken up during an emergency hearing in federal court on Monday.
“We're pleased that the Texas Supreme Court recognized that their arguments that drive-thru voting is illegal are flat-out wrong," said Susan Hays, an attorney for the Harris County Clerk's Office. “Lawsuits that are filed in the middle of an election to disrupt the election should be promptly denied."
Conservative Texas activists have railed against expanded voting access in Harris County, where a record 1.4 million early votes have already been cast. The county is the nation's third largest and a crucial battleground in Texas, where President Donald Trump and Republicans are bracing for the closest election in decades on Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen is expected to rule on the same issue on Monday. Hanen's decision to hear arguments on the brink of Election Day drew attention from voting rights activists. The Texas Supreme Court also rejected a nearly identical challenge last month.
Jared Woodfill, an attorney for the Republicans who brought the state and federal cases, said Sunday that his focus is on the hearing before Hanen.
“We're hopeful that he'll stop this illegal form of voting from continuing to occur,” Woodfill said.
Conservative GOP activists have filed a battery of court challenges over moves to expand voting options during the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenges have not involved President Donald Trump's campaign.
Trump won Texas by nine points in 2016 but polls have shown Democrat Joe Biden still within reach in America's biggest red state. Democrats also need to flip only nine seats to reclaim a majority in the Texas House for the first time in 20 years, and have aggressively targeted several races in Harris County.
Harris County has offered 10 drive-thru locations where its nearly 5 million residents can cast ballots in their cars instead of going inside polling centers. The accommodation aims to prevent transmission of the coronavirus. Woodfill, a former chairman of the Harris County GOP, argued that Texas election law makes no explicit allowances for drive-thru voting and that only voters who need assistance are eligible to cast a ballot curbside.
Woodfill's lawsuit also noted that all but one of the drive-thru centers were set up “in Democrat areas of the county." More than 40% of Harris County residents are Latino, and about one in five residents are Black.
Counting the drive-thru votes, Woodfill argued, would “call into question the integrity and legality of a federal election."
The Texas Supreme Court rejected an identical lawsuit last month. Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, who runs the county's elections, had asked Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to affirm that the drive-thru locations are legal but received no response.
Some Republicans have denounced the effort to throw the votes out. On Sunday, former Speaker of the Texas House Joe Straus called the suits “patently wrong.”
“I hope all elected statewide leaders in the Texas Republican Party will stand up against these desperate tactics,” Straus, a moderate who retired last year, wrote on Facebook.
Texas is one of just five states that did not allow for widespread mail-in voting this year during the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 18,000 people statewide. Abbott instead expanded early voting by one week, and that extra time helped Texas already surpass 2016's total votes even before Tuesday's election.
More than 9.7 million people have cast early ballots in Texas, where turnout typically ranks among the lowest in the country. Some elections experts predict that total turnout in Texas could surpass 12 million, and Harris County officials have taken more steps than most to expand voting access.
The county tripled the number of polling places and last week had eight locations that stayed open for 24 hours.