A federal judge in Houston on Monday rejected Republican efforts to invalidate more than 127,000 votes that were cast at drive-through locations in Harris County, a Democratic stronghold that includes Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.
But he also found that the tents housing most of the drive-through sites did not properly qualify as “buildings,” so he allowed only one of the ten locations to stay open on Election Day.
The lawsuit was one of the most aggressive moves by Republicans in an election marked by more than 400 voting-related lawsuits. And it came as Texas, long considered reliably Republican in presidential elections, has emerged as a swing state this year, with polls showing an unusually close race there.
Harris County, the most populous county in Texas, is home to one of the state’s largest concentrations of Democratic voters. It had set up 10 drive-through voting sites to offer a safe, in-person voting option amid the pandemic, and polls were open for 18 days.
But in a lawsuit, Republicans argued that Chris Hollins, the Harris County clerk, did not have the authority to allow drive-through voting in the county.
Judge Andrew S. Hanen, a federal judge who was appointed by President George W. Bush, held an emergency hearing for the lawsuit on Monday and ruled against tossing the ballots. On Sunday, the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court had rejected a similar effort to get those ballots tossed out.
“We win,” Susan Hays, the elections counsel for Mr. Hollins, said in a text message.
Rebecca Acuña, the Biden campaign’s Texas director, praised the decision. “Make no mistake: This is not a partisan victory,” she said. “This is a victory for voters across the country who are exercising their constitutional right to make their voices heard.”
State Representative Steve Toth, one of the Republican plaintiffs, said the judge ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing in the case. Hours after the decision was handed down, the Republican plaintiffs filed an appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. That appeal was denied Tuesday morning.
The drive-through voting system was put in place for the first time this year by Mr. Hollins, the top elections official in Harris County, with unanimous approval by county commissioners.
In a Twitter thread late Monday, Mr. Hollins called the ruling “a huge win for democracy” and said that since the hearing he had consulted with election law experts who confirmed the legality of drive-through voting.
But he also noted that in the order, Judge Hanen said that the tents housing most of the drive-through locations did not properly qualify as “buildings,” as is required for Election Day polling places. For that reason, Mr. Hollins said, only one of the 10 drive-through sites will be open on Election Day, at the Toyota Center arena.
“I cannot in good faith encourage voters to cast their votes in tents if that puts their votes at risk,” he said.
Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement after the ruling that the suit should never have been brought. “Texans who lawfully voted at drive-through locations should have never had to fear that their votes wouldn’t be counted and their voices wouldn’t be heard,” he said. “This lawsuit was shameful and it should have never seen the light of day.”