Here's what the March 1 primary taught us about Texas' new voting law
The past election was the first since Texas' controversial new voting law was in effect.
In the weeks ahead of Election Day, voting rights advocates braced themselves as local election officials began navigating rules created by Texas' new voting law.
James Slattery, a senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, was among the experts warning state lawmakers that the law, known as Senate Bill 1, would lead to confusion and trouble for voters.
“What we were concerned about was not any one specific problem, but a mix of confusion by voters and election officials as they were trying to implement this major and large new law,” he said.
SB 1 was a sweeping overhaul of the state’s election code. It set new restrictions on polling hours. It banned drive-thru voting. It created new ID requirements for mail-in voting and new paperwork requirements for people who assist voters with disabilities. On top of that, SB 1 created a slew of criminal penalties aimed at voters, volunteers and county election officials.
Because so much changed, Slattery said he was preparing for issues to crop up.
“You know whenever a new law is implemented for the first time, there is always going to be problems that you don’t anticipate,” he said.
Mostly, Slattery said, he was on the lookout for things he did see coming.
For instance, he warned lawmakers the new ID requirements for vote-by-mail applications and return envelopes would confuse voters and create chaos for local election officials across the state.
He was right.
Under SB 1, voters have to provide either a driver’s license or Social Security number on their vote-by-mail applications and return envelopes. That number has to match what’s on their voter registration record.
State election officials have said the vast majority of voters should have one or both of those numbers on their record, making that matching process straightforward.
However, in the weeks before early voting began, some county election officials reported they were having trouble matching large numbers of applications. In Travis County, about half the applications that came in couldn’t be matched to the voter registration database and were flagged for rejection.
Eventually, the state issued guidance on how local officials should cure applications so eligible voters didn't have their applications erroneously thrown out.
Then, voters began returning their mail-in ballots.
Local officials again were flagging large numbers of returned ballots mostly for issues related to the ID requirements. In addition to issues with matching, local officials found many voters simply missed the part of the envelope where they were supposed to put their ID information.
“It is not surprising that voters would overlook a step that they are not used to making at all on a document that is already wildly complicated,” Slattery said.
Over time, the percentage of ballots flagged for rejection came down. But the confusion was enough to deter some voters from voting by mail.
Dian Hanson, who lives in West Austin, said she’s been voting by mail ever since she became eligible almost a decade ago.
In Texas, only voters who are over 65, out of town on Election Day, disabled or in jail can vote by mail.
Hanson said before SB 1, she got an application sent to her without even asking; she would fill it out and vote without issue.
This time things were different.
“I knew that there was probably some place to put my identification, but to tell you the truth, it is very hard to find on that form,” she said. “As I was filling it out I kept seeing all these little stories on social media — both Facebook and Twitter — that applications for the ballots were being rejected.”
Hanson said those stories worried her, so she decided to vote in person. She said she’s lucky, because she works from home and there was a polling location nearby.
“It seems to me like neighborhoods that don’t have as easy access to the polls would be much more affected by this kind of confusion,” she said. “So I feel like I have that choice — that I can do that. But I fear for people who are disabled and don’t have transportation.”
Changes made by SB 1 also deterred some people from helping out during the election. That includes election workers, who now face criminal penalties if they obstruct poll watchers.
“[SB 1 is] creating uncertainty and reluctance among the volunteer workforce that we all depend on to make elections run."
Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact — the state’s largest interfaith advocacy network — said many of the people her group works with do civic engagement around elections, like working at polls, assisting voters with disabilities and helping people register to vote.
But Moorhead said some of these people are weighing the risks since SB 1 went into effect.
“We’ve had members telling us that they have been election judges for decades,” she said, “but they are not doing it this year because they are so concerned about potential criminal penalties.”
Moorhead said it’s easy to forget how integral volunteers are to the function of democracy. She said every voter in Texas is affected by the ramifications of SB 1.
“It’s creating uncertainty and reluctance among the volunteer workforce that we all depend on to make elections run,” she said.
Perhaps the people most affected by SB 1 are Texans who are older or disabled. The combination of confusion over new vote-by-mail rules and criminal penalties aimed at people who help others vote has been a concern ever since the legislation was introduced.
Disability rights groups in Texas sued state officials in federal court over the law, citing violations of both voting rights and disability rights.
Natalie Broussard, a voting rights advocate in the Houston area, said she’s been concerned about how SB 1 will affect older voters.
“I was getting my nails done last week and I overheard a conversation between two older Texans,” she said, “and one was actually saying that she had a family member who was upset because normally her mail-in ballot comes to her automatically.”
This time, the application didn’t come. A provision in SB 1 prohibits local election officials from sending out applications for mail-in ballots without someone requesting one.
Broussard, who has been a poll worker in past elections, said there is a cost to making changes to how people vote; not everyone has someone to help if they are confused or don’t know what to do.
“These are people who may or may not have connections to the community. They may live alone,” she said. “They may be primarily cut off from everyday society. I mean, we just don’t know.”
Broussard looked at the websites state election officials set up for voters to update their voter registration and other information. She said she found the process wasn’t straightforward; it was hard to get answers. Overall, she said, she worried it would be a barrier for older voters.
Slattery said he thinks all the issues created by SB 1 are a sign the law is creating more problems than it’s purporting to solve.
Republican lawmakers who pushed for the law said it was an effort to improve the “integrity” of elections in the state, even though there has been no evidence of widespread problems with Texas elections.
Slattery said he thinks all these issues, particularly with vote by mail, had the opposite effect.
“That puts the integrity of the democratic process into question and into question whether this was even a free and fair election,” he said. “And so I think we have to keep looking at this in the days after and come to some kind of reckoning about what these vote-by-mail rules did to our election.”
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