By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) - Texas counties will each be limited to a single site for voters to drop off mail ballots ahead of Election Day, Governor Greg Abbott said on Thursday.
The governor's order will close down more than a dozen satellite locations in at least two counties: Harris, which includes Houston, had opened 12 sites to collect early mail ballots, while Travis, which includes Austin, had four.
Texas is one of the few U.S. states that limits who can request absentee ballots: only voters who are over the age of 65, have a disability, are confined to a jail or will be out of town on Election Day can vote by mail.
Earlier this year, both the state Supreme Court and a federal appeals court rejected efforts to extend mail voting to all Texans amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The Nov. 3 election includes the White House race between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden as well as federal, state and local contests.
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In a nod to the outbreak, Abbott, a Republican, issued an order in July allowing voters to submit mail ballots in advance, rather than only on Election Day, and extending early voting by several days. Thursday's proclamation modified that order.
"These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting," Abbott said in a statement.
The Harris county clerk, Chris Hollins, said the change will create "widespread confusion and voter suppression," noting that multiple locations have been advertised for weeks.
"To force hundreds of thousands of seniors and voters with disabilities to use a single drop-off location in a county that stretches over nearly 2,000 square miles is prejudicial and dangerous," Hollins said.
Hollins has previously clashed with the state's Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton, who successfully petitioned the state Supreme Court to block Hollins' effort to mail absentee ballot applications to all voters.
The decision drew immediate criticism from the chairman of the state Democratic Party, Gilberto Hinojosa, that Abbott was changing the rules at the last minute.
"Governor Abbott and Texas Republicans are scared," he said in a statement. "We are creating a movement that will beat them at the ballot box on Nov. 3, and there's nothing these cheaters can do about it."
Thanks largely to Houston, Harris County is a Democratic stronghold. Texas, which has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in more than four decades, is seen as potentially competitive this year, though polls show Trump with a narrow lead.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey; Additional reporting by Callaghan O'Hare in Houston; Editing by Daniel Wallis)