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At least 18,000 Texas mail-in votes were rejected in the first election under new GOP voting rules

 Harris County election workers process election materials and prepare them for central count at the NRG Arena in Houston on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.
Pu Ying Huang
The Texas Tribune
Harris County election workers process election materials and prepare them for central count at the NRG Arena in Houston on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

In just 16 of the state’s largest counties, more than 18,000 mail-in ballots were rejected, most for failing to meet the new law’s ID requirements. A full statewide tally isn’t yet available.

Thousands of Texans who attempted to vote by mail in the March primary were disenfranchised in the state's first election conducted under a new Republican voting law. The state’s largest counties saw a significant spike in the rates of rejected mail-in ballots, most because they did not meet the new, stricter ID requirements.

Local ballot review boards met this week to finalize mail-in ballot rejections, throwing out 18,742 mail-in ballots in just 16 of the state’s 20 counties with the most registered voters. That includes Harris County, the state's largest county, where 6,919 ballots were scrapped — all but 31 of them because of the new ID requirements. The final statewide count for rejected ballots is still unknown; counties are still reporting numbers to the Texas secretary of state’s office.

The rates of rejections range from 6% to nearly 22% in Bexar County, where almost 4,000 of the more than 18,000 people who returned mail-in ballots saw their votes discarded. In most cases, ballots were rejected for failing to comply with tighter voting rules enacted by Republicans last year that require voters to provide their driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number to vote by mail, according to rejection data collected by The Texas Tribune. A few counties’ rejection rates also included ballots that arrived past the voting deadline, but problems with the new ID requirements were the overwhelming cause for not accepting votes.

The impact of the ID requirements was particularly pronounced in several larger counties, including Harris and Bexar. Votes lost to the ID rules accounted for 99.6% of rejections in Harris County, which reported an overall rejection rate of roughly 19% among ballots that were received in time. By contrast, the county's rejection rate in the 2018 primary was .3%.

In Dallas County, ID issues were also to blame for nearly all of the lost votes reported, accounting for 682 of the 694 ballots that were rejected. Most ballots that were rejected because of the ID requirements were missing an ID number altogether. The county had an overall rejection rate of 6.5%

In Hays County, a suburban county south of Austin, all but one of the 208 rejected ballots were lost to ID issues. The county’s total rejection rate was 8.2%.

In Hidalgo County, just five of the 526 mail-in ballots that were rejected were scrapped because they arrived late. Most were rejected because of the ID requirements, officials said. The county had an overall rejection rate of 19.4%.

In Williamson County, roughly 73% of the 521 rejected ballots were lost to ID issues. The second main reason for rejection was late returns. Overall, 11.6% of ballots were rejected in the county.

“The rate of rejections is unprecedented in our county and, from what I’m hearing from my colleagues, in other counties as well,” said Chris Davis, the elections administrator for Williamson County.

The rejection rates easily outstrip those seen in previous elections. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission found less than 2% of mail-in ballots were rejected statewide in the 2018 midterm election. The statewide rejection rate in the 2020 presidential election was less than 1%. In that higher-turnout election, the commission found 8,304 ballots were tossed.

Texas’ strict eligibility criteria for voting by mail means the thousands of tossed votes most likely belonged to people 65 and older and people with disabilities. The requirements were championed by Republicans as part of a package of voting changes and restrictions, contained in legislation known as Senate Bill 1, which they argued was meant to enhance the security of the state’s elections — despite no evidence of widespread irregularities.

"Make no mistake: The rate of rejection of mail ballots in the primary is catastrophic and undemocratic,” said James Slattery, a senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “This is a direct result of the new ID number requirement in SB 1. Those who chose to pass this law are directly responsible for disenfranchising tens of thousands Texas voters.”

Slattery was among various voting rights advocates who warned state lawmakers of the potential fallout of the new ID requirements. The rejection numbers in the new law's first test make it vital for the Legislature to “recognize the grievous harm that it inflicted on voters” and repeal the requirements, Slattery said.

Texas Republican leaders who championed the law, including its author, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, and Gov. Greg Abbott, have not responded to requests for comment about the ballot rejection issues. Hughes often said the legislation would make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.

For months, the possibility that a crush of Texans’ votes would be lost under the new rules loomed over the March primary election — the first election since the voting law went into effect — even though primaries typically see fairly low turnout. Just 17.5% of registered voters participated, according to preliminary turnout data.

The earliest signs of trouble came in January when counties reported an alarming increase in the number of rejected applications for mail-in ballots based on the new ID rules. When the actual ballots began arriving at local elections offices, the surge continued, as ballots were initially rejected by the hundreds and then thousands because many voters appeared unaware of the new ID requirements.

Early rejection rates hovered between 30% to 40% but dropped as thousands of voters worked to safeguard their votes, often by visiting county elections offices after their ballots were flagged for rejection. Hundreds of other voters canceled their mail-in ballots and opted to vote in person instead, according to county data.

That included more than 300 voters in El Paso County who had initially requested absentee ballots but voted in person, with several voters surrendering their ballots at polling places. The county ended the election with a 16% rejection rate, throwing out 725 votes — 94% of them because of the ID rules.

“In the 2020 primary, we rejected 39 ballots,” Lisa Wise, the elections administrator in El Paso, said ahead of election day when the county had flagged more than a thousand ballots for review. “You don’t have to be a math wizard to see it.”

But the opportunity to resolve rejections — or to alternatively head to a polling place — was out of reach for some voters. County officials have said mail-in voters often include people for whom voting in person can be a challenge or who are unable to travel to the county elections office, which for voters in some counties can be a long distance away.

Voters facing a rejected ballot because of ID issues were also directed to the state’s new online tracker to try to validate their information, but technical issues with the tracker’s setup shut out nearly a million registered voters from even accessing it.

Under state law, a voter must provide both a driver’s license number and the last four digits of their Social Security number to log in to the tracker; both numbers must be on file in their voter record even though voters are required to provide only one number when they first register to vote.

Despite the secretary of state’s office’s efforts to backfill ID numbers in the state’s voter rolls, more than 700,000 voters lacked one of those ID numbers on their voter records as of Dec. 20. Another 106,911 voters didn’t have either number.

It’s likely not all of those voters are eligible to vote by mail, but the barrier risked hindering enough of Kara Sands’ voters that she pulled references to the online ballot tracker from the guidance she was providing Nueces County voters. Sands, the Republican elected county clerk, said most of the older voters in her county first registered to vote with a Social Security number and that remained the only ID on file for them.

“Why am I going to send them [materials saying] ‘Go here to fix it’ knowing they can’t fix it?” Sands said in an interview ahead of election day.

Implementation of the ID rules also came amid a voter education crunch in the quick turnaround between when the law was enacted and when the first applications to vote started coming in at the start of the year.

The ID requirements forced a redesign of those applications and the specialized envelope to return completed ballots, but those were not finalized until December. Even if there had been room for earlier voter education, county officials said they feared running afoul of a different provision of the voting law that prohibits them from “soliciting” requests for mail-in ballots from voters.

Several were forced to abandon specific outreach to regular mail-in voters that could’ve included instructions about fulfilling the new ID requirements. Before the new voting law went into effect, election administrators in some counties would proactively contact eligible voters who previously cast mail-in ballots at the start of every year to remind them they needed to reapply if they wanted to continue receiving absentee ballots.

“We kind of have to watch what we do or say because of how the bill is worded,” Roxzine Stinson, the elections administrator for Lubbock County, said during early voting. “We have to stay as close to the intent of the bill.”

Even the Texas secretary of state’s office felt the pressure as it prepared formal guidance to counties on how to implement the raft of changes contained in the voting law. For example, when the state’s new online portal for mail-in voters launched mid-January, county election officials had not received training from the state on how to interface with it so voters could use it.

Despite the rule changes, the Legislature did not appropriate funding for voter education.

But the secretary of state added the mail-in requirements to the education campaign the office has been required to carry out since a 2016 court order in the litigation over the state’s photo ID requirements for voting in person. That campaign largely focuses on sending voters to votetexas.gov, the state’s main website containing voting information.

“This year is a new challenge due to the new ID requirements for mail voting in Texas, but we are confident we have the data and research we need to apply any lessons learned during the primary campaign to a more robust campaign heading into the November General Election,” Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the secretary of state, said in an email.

Copyright 2022 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Alexa Ura and Mandi Cai | The Texas Tribune