Houston Matters

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee on new challenges to voting by mail, and what’s next

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee spoke with Houston Matters about recent problems with mail-in voting and how money from a major opioid settlement will be distributed in Texas.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee.

On Friday’s Houston Matters, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee joined the show to discuss some of the challenges presented by mail-in voting, including a letter county leaders sent to the U.S. Department of Justice asking them to intervene over a number of rejected mail-in ballots.

With early voting underway and the primary election just around the corner, Harris County leaders say the mail-in voting process has presented new challenges. After Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee co-signed a letter to the U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, he told Houston Matters on Friday that new rules established by Senate Bill 1 — one of which requires voters to use the same ID for voting by mail that they registered to vote with — were designed to confuse voters.

“What we saw is the vote-by-mail additional requirements on IDs were extremely confusing to folks including our seniors, our active duty service persons, our neighbors with disabilities,” Menefee said.

He went on to say that with the new requirements it’s particularly frustrating that there was no effort to help educate voters and elections officials on the changes.

“The most egregious part of all this is you haven't seen a robust education event and outreach by the Secretary of State's office to say, ‘Hey, SB 1 is a new law that’s in place. Here’s what it means. Here’s how it impacts you as a voter.'”

Another component of Senate Bill 1 prohibits election officials from encouraging voters to vote by mail, and on Thursday the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily reversed a recent ruling by U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez that had paused enforcement of that provision. Menefee said the law violates the First Amendment rights of election officials to inform voters of their voting options, and said he was hopeful the Fifth Circuit would ultimately support the district court’s ruling.

Beyond mail-in voting woes, Menefee also shared insight into upcoming payments to the state from a national settlement with pharmaceutical companies over the opioid crisis.

Listen to the whole interview, or read excerpts below, edited for length and clarity:

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On DOJ involvement:

“In the wake of former President Trump saying that the 2020 election was stolen, a bunch of these states in the South have passed these laws that are obviously intended to confuse voters to strip people out of the process. And you’ve seen a Department of Justice that has been willing to get involved in these fights to protect people’s rights, because they believe that it is an important right that is derived from the Constitution, and it’s necessary for the federal government to get involved.”

On the Fifth Circuit decision:

“The part of the law that we’ve challenged is, it makes it a crime for elections officials and public officials to encourage folks to vote by mail. Even though candidates can encourage folks to vote by mail. So we’ve seen candidates like Congressman Dan Crenshaw, former President Donald Trump, when he was running in 2020 – they encourage their voters to go out and vote by mail. But now it’s a crime for elections officials to do so. The reason why that’s so egregious is you have folks in our community who, it’s necessary for them to vote by mail, right? We have seniors who may not be as mobile, we have folks with disabilities who can’t get out to the polls. And so I believe that our elections officials should be able to explain the processes to these folks and to say, ‘hey, voting by mail is probably a good option by you, you should consider it.’ And the fact that these folks can’t make that truthful speech, something that we know to be truthful, telling a 65 year old voter, ‘voting by mail is a good option, and you should consider it,’ — it’s truthful speech.”

On whether the case may go to the Supreme Court:

“I think that this United States Supreme Court has been a tad bit unpredictable to some folks. So we’ll see. We will certainly be pushing for the outcome if we have the opportunity to do so. But I’m hopeful that the Fifth Circuit is going to take a look at the arguments is going to be objective in the matter and is going to make the right decision.”

On the Texas opioid settlement:

“A smaller pot of money will be coming directly to Harris County is about $7.5 million. That’ll be coming to Harris County this year. And then over the course of the next 14 years, we’ll be receiving about $800,000 on an annual basis, that money will be distributed directly to the county and so it’ll be Commissioner’s court that decides how that money is spent. But what we do now is that the opioid epidemic is a very serious problem that’s impacting communities, folks throughout this country and here in Harris County. So you know, we’re going to put that money to work to ensure that we’re trying to abate those issues and protect those people who fell into addiction.”

“Generally, in these types of settlements, you don’t see an explicit admission of wrongdoing. But I think the money speaks for itself. The fact that you’re seeing $26 billion being distributed throughout the country, and $1.8 billion right here in Texas makes very clear that somebody did something wrong, and the folks who were paying the money had something to do it. So, you know, between these manufacturers and distributors, you had companies that were doing what was necessary to get doctors to get folks to take more of this stuff. Pushing out more prescriptions, ensuring that more people will become addicted to opiates. And so I think the money speaks for itself and the fact that we’re getting this money is an important step to ensuring that we’re abating these issues.”

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Joshua Zinn

Joshua Zinn

Producer, Houston Matters

Joshua is a producer for Houston Matters on News 88.7 as well as the host of Encore Houston on HPM Classical. He joined Houston Public Media as a radio intern in 2014 and became a full-time announcer the following year. Now he prepares segments and occasionally records interviews for Houston...

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