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High numbers of mail ballots are being rejected in Texas under a new state law

Thousands of mail ballots are being rejected ahead of the upcoming Texas state primary.
LM Otero
/
AP
Thousands of mail ballots are being rejected ahead of the upcoming Texas state primary.

Weeks ahead of the state's March 1 primary, local election officials in Texas are sending mail-in ballots back to thousands of voters who had turned them in, citing issues with ID requirements created by the state's controversial new voting law.

In Harris County — Texas' largest county, which is home to Houston — election officials said they'd received 6,548 mail-in ballots as of Saturday and had returned almost 2,500 — nearly 38% — for correction because of an incorrect ID.

That's a far higher rejection rate than is typical.

Isabel Longoria, the Harris County elections administrator, says it's a serious problem.

"Mail ballots are people's votes," Longoria says. "So, I am very concerned — not just with the complexity of the process, but how that added complexity is going to increase the number of mail ballots that we have to reject."

Voting for the March 1 primary that is currently underway in Texas is the first big election held in the state since Senate Bill 1, a GOP-backed law that introduced sweeping changes to the Texas election code, went into effect.

Why mail ballots are being rejected

Across the country, several states have cracked down on their vote-by-mail programs following the 2020 election. Texas, however, already had one of the most limited programs. Only voters who are over 65, disabled, out of town or in jail are able to cast a mail-in ballot in Texas.

Despite warnings from groups representing older voters and voters with disabilities, state lawmakers included new restrictions for vote by mail in the law.

SB 1 requires that the ID voters use when they vote by mail — whether it's a driver's license number or partial Social Security number — matches what's on their voter registration record. This new rule applies to both the application to vote by mail as well as the return envelope voters use to send their ballot back to election officials.

This requirement has already tripped up thousands of voters applying for a mail-in ballot who didn't remember what ID they used to register — sometimes decades ago.

Chris Davis, the elections administrator in Williamson County north of Austin, says he and many other local officials were nervous this problem would be even bigger as voters returned their ballots.

"All of us county election officials are unfortunately anticipating a higher number of mail ballot rejections," he says. "And the window to fix that is much, much narrower."

How ballot issues can be fixed

James Slattery, a senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, says election officials and voters face a big-time crunch when it comes to sorting out any ID issues that arise with a returned vote-by-mail ballot.

"Basically if there is a problem with your ID number on a vote-by-mail ballot return envelope, the process depends on when the problem is identified," he says.

If the problem is caught very early, election officials can send the ballot back to be fixed and then the voter can mail it back again. However, Slattery says a lot of issues with vote-by-mail ballots are identified late in the game. That's because sometimes it takes awhile for the ballot to get mailed to the voter. People also like to take their time with their ballot, he says, so they return it pretty close to the deadline.

Slattery says that's why it's more likely that election officials will have to resort to another process.

"The county may — but is not required to — contact the voter and say, 'You can either cancel your mail ballot and vote in person, or come to the clerk's office in person within six days of the election to fix the problem,' " he says. "That is a very convoluted process ... that obviously is not helpful for people who are not in Texas."

State election officials say there are steps voters can take to prevent these issues.

Sam Taylor, assistant secretary of state for communications, says a Texas voter who is already registered can update their registration online — even after the registration deadline — on a new website the state created to make sure it has all the IDs the voter uses.

"You are not changing anything by adding information to your voter registration record, you are just making it more complete," he says. "So that doesn't start the clock over in terms of whether or not you were registered by the deadline for the March primary."

But Grace Chimene, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, says that's not an ideal solution — especially for older and disabled voters.

"To be told that there's changes like this and then the expectation that they are supposed to log on in a complicated manner and be able to figure out how to update their voter registration card, I think it is really a shame," she says.

Taylor says his office is also recommending that voters provide both their Social Security and driver's license numbers — if they have them — on their application and return ballots, just in case.

Taylor says state election officials do not want to see vote-by-mail ballots get rejected.

"The secretary's stated open position is that we hope that number is zero," he says. "Obviously, we don't want anyone who is eligible to vote by mail to have their ballot-by-mail application rejected, or to have their ballot rejected."

Voting groups in Texas are telling voters to return their mail-in ballots as early as they possibly can; that way there's enough time to fix a problem. And local election officials say they are doing their best to catch voters up on what's changed.

Ultimately, says Harris County's Longoria, county election workers have limited time and limited resources to sort out confusion created by the new voting rules.

"This is not something I can outwork," she says. "No matter how many hours I stay up in the day, no matter how many team members we get here, no matter how many people we put on the phones to help voters — at the end of the day, this hurts voters."

Copyright 2022 KUT 90.5

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez joined KUT in January 2016. She covers politics and health care, and is part of the NPR-Kaiser Health News reporting collaborative. Previously she worked as a reporter at public radio stations in Louisville, Ky.; Miami and Fort Myers, Fla., where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.