Texas leans on new voting law to reject thousands of primary ballots

·6 min read

Officials in Texas are rejecting thousands of mail-in ballots ahead of the first 2022 midterm primary votes next month, raising serious alarm that a new Republican law is going to disenfranchise droves of eligible voters.

The state’s 1 March primary is being closely watched as the first important testof one of the dozens of voting restrictions GOP-controlled state legislatures enacted in 2021.

Last August, Texas Republicans passed a sweeping new voting law, SB 1, that imposes new identification requirements in the mail-in voting process, prohibits election officials from soliciting mail-in ballots, provides partisan poll watchers with more autonomy at the polls and outlaws 24-hour and curbside voting.

They claimed it was to reduce fraud, despite little evidence of it being committed in 2020. Critics smell discrimination.

The March primary is the first election cycle the new law is in effect as voters go to the polls to choose their party’s nominee for US House races and the state governor, among others.

County election officials are already seeing significant consequences from the new rules around mail-in voting. So far, they have rejected 2,202 of the 32,817 applications for mail-in ballots submitted – a 6.7% rejection rate, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office.

Texas already has strict limits on who can vote by mail, allowing only those who are age 65 and older, disabled or out of town for the entire election period to do so.

Those who qualify can continue to request mail-in ballots until mid-February, and officials and voting advocates are worried that the number of rejections could rise as more people submit their applications. They also say it does not portend well for the general election in November, when turnout will be higher.

“It’s already a clusterfuck,” said Charlie Bonner, a spokesperson for Move Texas, a group that works on voter mobilization in Texas.

The source of the vast majority of those rejections is a new provision in state law that requires voters to provide either their Texas driving license number or the last four digits of their social security number – or both – on their application for vote by mail. Some voters registered originally with only one of those numbers, and if they now put the other on their application, it gets rejected.

“We’re going to lose a lot of voters and I don’t think they’re going to be coming back. I think it was purposely done to try to cull out voters and make it harder for them to participate in our democracy,” said Grace Chimene, the president of the Texas chapter of the League of Women Voters, a non-partisan group that works on voting issues.

The rejection numbers in some of the state’s largest counties are extremely high. In Travis county, home of state capital Austin, a little under one-third of the absentee ballot applications were rejected because of problems with the ID requirements. In Dallas and Tarrant counties, election officials have rejected 12% and 16% of mail-in applications already because of ID issues.

“The reason why these are happening is to make it harder to vote in Texas and it impacts poor people, it impacts voters of color, Black voters especially, Hispanic voters and disabled voters and right now, older voters,” Chimene said.

Advocates also dismissed the idea that the difficulties in Texas are growing pains that will diminish as the state and election officials get used to administering the new law.

“Their intent was never for this to be a one-time problem,” Bonner said. “This is working exactly as it was intended – to confuse people, to create simple mistakes that get applications and ballots thrown out … they are trying to create the problems to justify what they have done.”

One of the people denied a ballot was Kenneth Thompson, a 95-year-old second world war veteran who registered to vote before the state required voters to provide a driver’s license or social security number when they registered.

He told Click2Houston he has never missed a vote, but that now his request for a mail-in ballot was denied twice. His daughter re-registered him to vote to ensure he could cast a ballot in the primary.

Bonner said: “It’s one of these problems of when they legislate in conspiracy theories and not actually in fact. Real people get hurt when you are not legislating in reality.”

The Texas secretary of state’s office says they are taking steps to lower the likelihood of rejection. In a 20 January video, John Scott, Texas’ GOP secretary of state, released a video encouraging Texans to put both their state ID number and last four digits of their social security number on the mail-in ballot application.

The state is also working to update voter records to include both the social security numbers and driver’s license numbers, and recently released guidance to local election officials on how to help voters fix deficient applications.

But election officials face another problem. SB 1 makes it a state jail felony for election officials to solicit mail-in ballot applications from voters. That provision has made local election officials wary of what they can say to voters about mail-in voting, said Isabel Longoria, the top election official in Harris county, the most populous in the state.

“I’ve got to be able to talk about mail ballots. I’ve got to be able to encourage people here who can vote by mail, we still encourage people to vote by mail if they are infirm in a pandemic … even me saying that in this interview, that may not be legal,” said Longoria, who is suing the state over the anti-solicitation requirement.

“How shocking of a world is it where it’s not that I just can’t send mail, we’re even having to tiptoe around how we even talk about mail ballots.”

There have been problems outside the mail-in voting process, too.

Texas does not have online voter registration, and the Texas secretary of state initially refused to provide the League of Women Voters with thousands of new paper forms they could use to register voters, citing a paper shortage and supply chain problems.

After a warning it might be running afoul of federal law, the Texas secretary of state’s office provided the League with 7,000 voter registration forms.

“I was irritated. It just didn’t make any sense to me,” Chimene said. “I don’t know what changed. Probably all the pressure of being in the news, made the secretary of state finally provide the forms. No apology.”

The Texas Democratic party announced plans in January to print 500,000 voter registration postcards.