By Makini Brice and Tim Reid
(Reuters) - A Texas appeals court on Friday ruled the Republican governor cannot limit drop-off sites for mail ballots to one per county, a setback for U.S. President Donald Trump.
Upholding a lower court decision, the appeals court ruled against Texas Governor Greg Abbott. The Texas 3rd Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that limiting the number of drop boxes would increase the risk that voters could get infected with COVID-19, and would infringe on their right to vote.
Abbott has informed the voting rights groups who oppose his move to limit drop boxes that he intends to quickly appeal Friday's ruling to the Texas Supreme Court, effectively delaying the re-opening of ballot drop-off locations.
"We don't expect his limit to get lifted until the Texas Supreme Court rules," said Myrna Perez, director of the voting rights and elections program at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan public policy institute which represented the groups challenging Abbott's order.
Trump has repeatedly criticized mail-in ballots, claiming without evidence they would lead to widespread fraud. Trump, a Republican, faces Democrat Joe Biden in the race for the White House on Nov. 3.
Trump won Texas by nine percentage points in 2016. Though a Democratic presidential candidate has not won the state in more than four decades, opinion polls suggest it might be in reach for Biden, in part because of dissatisfaction over Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Abbott on Oct. 1 issued an order limiting mail-in ballot drop boxes to one per county.
On Oct. 15, Judge Tim Sulak said the limitation "would likely needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections, and needlessly and unreasonably substantially burden voters' constitutionally protected rights to vote."
In a unanimous ruling on Friday, the three-member appeals court expressed concerns that limiting drop boxes would increase congestion and long lines, endangering the health of voters.
(Reporting by Tim Reid and Makini Brice; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Grant McCool and Daniel Wallis)