UPDATE: The defendants in the case appealed this decision. On Feb. 17, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed (meaning paused) the preliminary injunction and ordered the appeal to be heard on an expedited basis. Oral argument is currently scheduled for March 8.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Friday evening, a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas issued a preliminary injunction blocking a part of the state’s new voter suppression law, Senate Bill 1. The blocked provision, known as the anti-solicitation provision, makes it a crime for election officials to encourage eligible individuals to request a mail-in ballot application. The elections administrator for Harris County, Isabel Longoria, and a volunteer deputy registrar sued over this provision, arguing that it violates the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution by chilling (meaning deterring) and criminalizing free speech. After a hearing on Friday, Feb. 11, the judge barred the anti-solicitation provision from being enforced while the case is litigated.
In the ruling, the judge held that both plaintiffs demonstrated that their speech was chilled due to the anti-solicitation provision in S.B. 1. Both election officials testified that they feared civil and criminal penalties and therefore were not encouraging eligible voters to fill out a mail-in ballot application. For example, the Harris County elections administrator stated “that she is chilled from using print and electronic communications with information about eligibility to vote by mail, bringing vote-by-mail applications to voter-outreach events, and highlighting the benefits of voting by mail in her communications with voters” — actions that were a large part of her job before S.B. 1 was enacted. The judge found that it “is substantially likely that the anti-solicitation provision violates the First Amendment, as incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment” and therefore a preliminary injunction is warranted because the plaintiffs’ “speech has been and continues to be chilled, and the need for relief is urgent, given the fast-approaching deadline for requesting applications for mail-in ballots” (Feb. 18 for the March primary). The anti-solicitation provision will remain blocked until the case is decided.