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TEXAS VIEW: Paxton’s actions hinder efforts to keep us safe - Odessa American: Texas Opinion

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TEXAS VIEW: Paxton’s actions hinder efforts to keep us safe

THE POINT: Politics should not guide how our elected representatives govern during a crisis.

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Posted: Thursday, May 21, 2020 2:30 am

Amid the worst public health emergency in more than a century, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is threatening to go after local officials who wish to keep us safer.

You read that correctly.

Given Texas’ long reputation for its elected state officials who use their office to try to override the decisions of local governments, typically if they’re led by Democrats, Paxton’s actions smack of political maneuvering in a pivotal election year. More troubling, they hinder the efforts of well-meaning local officials to keep us all safe.

On Tuesday, May 12, the Republican attorney general’s office sent a letter to Austin and Travis County officials, directing that they modify their stay-at-home orders to match looser statewide restrictions issued by Gov. Greg Abbott. Paxton threatened legal action if they don’t comply.

The next day, Paxton asked the Texas Supreme Court to order election officials in Travis and four other Democratic-leaning counties to heed his legal interpretation that fear of contracting the coronavirus — reasonable considering it has claimed more than 85,000 American lives so far — is not a valid reason for voters to ask for mail-in ballots.

In a separate case in April, Travis County state District Judge Tim Sulak, responding to a lawsuit filed by the Texas Democratic Party, ordered voting by mail be available to anyone who requests a ballot. Paxton wanted the judge’s order put on hold; last Thursday an appeals court ruled against him, but the legal fight is far from finished.

In taking exception to Austin’s stay-at-home rules, Paxton said they go too far because they require everyone over age 6 to wear a face covering when leaving their residence. Abbott’s statewide order encourages use of masks but doesn’t mandate it.

The letter from Paxton’s office said the Austin/Travis County rules were unconstitutional and unlawful. We must point out that the local rules state there are no civil or criminal penalties for not wearing a mask. They merely seek to have everyone do what is safe and sensible and in line with health experts’ recommendations to slow the spread of the coronavirus. We must also note the double standard at play: When a Dallas woman reopened her hair salon, violating the governor’s emergency order and defying a court order, Republican officials rushed to her rescue, absolving her of responsibility for breaking the law.

In trying to bar mail-in voting by people who claim they fear contracting the coronavirus at the polls, Paxton argues that state law narrowly defines who can receive a ballot by mail and that fear of contracting a disease does not meet the criteria. In his petition to the state’s highest civil court, Paxton said the Legislature has determined “that widespread mail-in-balloting carries unacceptable risks of corruption and fraud.”

That’s a refrain you hear often from Republican lawmakers in Texas, though a wide body of research does not back it up. An exhaustive investigative journalism analysis of all known voter fraud cases identified only 491 cases of absentee ballot fraud from 2000 to 2012, according to a new Brennan Center report. Billions of votes were cast during that period.

In these grave times and with important elections looming, people should not have to risk their health and their lives in order to vote. Rather than trying to squash efforts to expand voting by mail during the pandemic, officials should be working urgently to hold safe elections, including expanding voting alternatives.

And local officials shouldn’t be browbeaten for merely trying to ensure that their communities have a reasonable chance of staying healthy and avoiding a fast-spreading and deadly contagion, putting others at risk. Not when there are signs that what Austin is doing is working and when Texas is struggling to curb the pandemic. According to a Drexel University study, stay-at-home orders in Austin-Travis County have saved nearly 5,000 lives. Cases and deaths continue to climb statewide, however.

Texas ignored benchmarks recommended by federal health officials as precursors to reopening businesses, including that states show a reduction in cases for at least 14 days. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned of grave consequences for states that reopen too soon. These states, he said, could see new outbreaks of COVID-19 that result in “needless suffering and death.”

No one wants that. Not Republicans. Not Democrats. Political calculations should not guide how our elected representatives govern during a pandemic. Especially not when they hinder our best efforts to keep us all safe.

Odessa, TX

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