RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
OK. Since early voting started in Texas on Tuesday, about a million Texans have cast ballots in person. The lines have been long, but efforts to make voting easier, like more absentee ballots, have all but died in the courts. Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin reports.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Joe Cascino is 20 years old and a junior at the University of Texas in Austin. This is the very first presidential election he is eligible to vote in, and he says he's been looking forward to this for a long time.
JOE CASCINO: After Trump's election, I got energized to get more involved, more active.
LOPEZ: But Cascino is also a little freaked out about voting this year. His roommate is immunocompromised, so the pandemic made him worried about voting in person.
CASCINO: Living with someone who's immunocompromised, I wanted to do whatever I could to not risk my contact with that person.
LOPEZ: Cascino says he wanted to vote by mail, but unlike other states, it's mostly restricted to people over 65 and disabled here. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has said without evidence that he thinks mail-in ballots make elections less secure.
KEN PAXTON: There are some people out there that clearly want mail-in ballots because they know it's easier to change election results.
LOPEZ: Joe Cascino says forcing people under 65 to vote in person during a pandemic discriminates against young people. So he and other voters sued state officials in federal court. Andre Segura with the ACLU of Texas says there have been more voting lawsuits filed as the state has become more politically competitive.
ANDRE SEGURA: So with each election here in Texas, we've seen increasing voter turnout, particularly in brown and Black communities around the state.
LOPEZ: In 2018, Democrats flipped two congressional seats, 12 state House seats, and the state had its closest Senate race in decades. And Segura says now that the current presidential race is also tightening, Republican state officials are pulling out all the stops.
SEGURA: It seems like our state officials are getting more desperate. One of the most recent restrictions was that we saw from Gov. Abbott in which he limited drop-off locations to only one per county. And we saw a real national outrage.
LOPEZ: But the courts didn't see a problem. In fact, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Texas officials several times in the past few months.
STEVE VLADECK: I don't think there's any question that the federal appeals courts across the country, but especially here in Texas, have really been pushing back against efforts to ensure broader, easier access to voting.
LOPEZ: That Steve Vladeck at UT Austin School of Law. He says the 5th Circuit has gotten more conservative under the Trump administration. And as a result, he says, voters and civil rights groups have lost a lot of cases.
VLADECK: And, you know, I think, unfortunately, that leaves folks at least with the impression, if not the reality, that, you know, the courts really are picking sides.
LOPEZ: As for Joe Cascino, he voted at 7 a.m. on the first day of early voting in Texas. He says he was excited.
CASCINO: At the same time, I couldn't help but think about how much easier this could have been and how much less risk it could have been for myself and others who I live with.
LOPEZ: While several voting cases here have been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, civil rights groups have said the damage has already been done because voting is already underway. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin.
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