(CNN)A federal judge has temporarily blocked several Texas counties from pursuing criminal charges against public officials who encourage voters to use mail ballots in next month’s primary election.
The preliminary injunction marks a victory for officials in Harris County, home to Houston, who argued that the controversial provision in a new Texas election law barred them from helping voters.
The law, passed last year by the Republican-led legislature, already has fed frustration across the state in recent weeks as voters struggle with new identification requirements.
US District Court Judge Xavier Rodriguez rejected arguments from the Texas Attorney General’s Office that blocking enforcement of that provision could sow confusion among voters, who already have begun to mail in ballots ahead of the state’s March 1 primary.
The injunction “does not affect any voting procedures,” Rodriguez wrote. “It simply prevents the imposition of criminal and civil penalties against officials for encouraging people to vote by mail if they are eligible to do so.”
February 18 is the deadline for Texas election officials to receive absentee ballot applications for next month’s primary. Early in-person voting begins Monday.
The primary is the first statewide election in Texas since Republicans there enacted sweeping new restrictions on voting last September, and it marks an early test of how the changes will affect turnout.
Officials in Harris County, the state’s most populous, said Friday’s court action freed them to begin outreach to eligible voters ahead of next week’s deadline to receive mail ballot applications.
“This is a fantastic result that will benefit voters across Texas,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a statement.
Problems have plagued mail-in voting in recent weeks, as voters — and local officials — struggle to navigate the new rules. Election officials say hundreds of mail ballots already have been flagged for possible rejection in recent days.
The new Texas law, known as SB1, requires voters who want to cast mail-in ballots to provide identifying information twice: first when requesting an absentee mail ballot and then when submitting the completed ballot.
The identification the voter provides — a Texas ID number, such as a driver’s license number, or a partial Social Security number — must match the number on file with the voter’s registration record.
In Harris County, 40% of mail-in ballots received so far have been flagged as faulty, county officials said. In all but a handful of cases, the problems involve the new identification requirement, officials said.
SB1 makes it a crime, punishable by at least six months in prison, for a public official to knowingly solicit “the submission of an application to vote by mail” from a person who did not request one.
Election officials also face fines of up to $10,000 for violating the ban.
Isabel Longoria, Harris County’s top election official, sued to block the provision, arguing that it violated her First Amendment right to free speech. She was joined in the lawsuit by Cathy Morgan, a volunteer who registers voters in the Austin area.
The ruling bars prosecutors in three Texas counties — Harris, Travis, and Williamson — from pursuing criminal charges. And it prohibits those counties and the Texas attorney general from seeking civil penalties.
In court Friday, Longoria testified her office had received about 8,000 voter phone calls in January alone — roughly 5,000 of which concerned absentee ballots.
But her staff has had to “very gingerly kind of walk around” what they are allowed to say to those voters — to avoid breaking the law, she said.
In a statement Friday night, Longoria called the order a “huge relief.”
“Now I can go back to doing an important part of my job,” she said.
Just a narrow slice of Texans can vote absentee by mail. They include those 65 or older, voters who will be out of their home county during in-person voting, those who are sick or disabled, and people who are incarcerated but still have the right to vote.
Nearly 1 million Texans used mail-in ballots during the 2020 election.