Texas counties reject unprecedented numbers of mail ballots ahead of March 1 primary under restrictive new law

By Amy Gardner

Washington Post February 11, 2022

A restrictive new voting law in Texas has sown confusion and erected hurdles for those casting ballots in the state’s March 1 primary, with election administrators rejecting early batches ofmail ballots at historic rates and voters uncertain about whether they will be able to participate.

In recent days,thousands ofballots have been rejected because voters did not meet a new requirement to provide an identification number inside the return envelope.

In Harris County, the state’s most populous county and home to Houston, election officials said Friday that 40 percent of roughly 3,600returned ballots so far have lacked the identification number required under Senate Bill 1, as the new law is known. In Williamson County, a populous northern suburb of Austin, the rejection rate has been about 25 percent in the first few days that ballots have come in, the top election official there said.

“Twenty-five percent of mail ballots from the starting blocks is a big deal for our county,” said Chris Davis, Williamson County’s elections chief. “We’ve never seen it before. And yes, our hope is that we can get these voters to correct the defects in a timely fashion. But what if they don’t, because three months ago they didn’t have to? There’s a learning curve. There are going to be possibly painful lessons that their vote doesn’t count because they weren’t aware.”

All the officials said that the sample size is small at this early stage and that the rate of rejected ballotscould improve as more arrive. Jennifer Anderson, the elections chief in Hays County, southwest of Austin, said her staff had rejected 25 percent of the first small batch of returned ballots — but by Friday morning, the rate had dropped to 4 percent.

“It seems like our outreach is working,” she said.

Still, the defect rate so far is alarming election administrators, voting advocates and some voters as primary day quickly approaches and many thousands more ballots are still to be returned. The rejection rates provide an early opportunity to assess the impact of Senate Bill 1, one of dozens of restrictive voting laws enacted by Republicans across the country last year amid an avalanche of false claims, many from former president Donald Trump, that the 2020 presidential race was tainted by widespread fraud.

State Rep. Briscoe Cain (R), a leading proponent of Senate Bill 1, said in a text message that “Texans deserve to have confidence in the electoral system.” The new law ensures that, Cain said, by creating uniform voting hours across the state, expanding access for those who need assistance and enhancing transparency with provisions that protect the rights of partisan poll watchers.

“I’m confident that local election officials will prioritize assisting voters through the process instead of gaslighting to gin up fear and confusion,” Cain said.

In addition to adding identification requirements, the wide-reaching law imposes new penalties for anyone who registers to vote or casts a ballot but is not eligible to do so. It also empowers partisan poll watchers by imposing penalties on poll workers who impede their ability to observe the voting process, among other changes.

A federal judge delivered a narrow defeat to one part of the law on Friday. U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez ruled that in Harris County and in the Austin area, the state can’t enforce a provision forbidding public officials to encourage voters to vote by mail, the Associated Press reported. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office did not immediately respond to a message.

The rejection of mail ballots is not the first challenge that Senate Bill 1 has presented, and election officials — who are nonpartisan in Texas — fear it won’t be the last. In January, counties also began rejecting a high percentage of mail ballot applications, which now require the same identification numbers as the ballots themselves. The law requires voters to provide either a Texas state identification number, typically from their driver’s license, or the last four digits of their Social Security number. The number they provide must match the identification number on file with their registration record.

Many counties are experiencing significant application rejection rates; in Harris, the figure is 35 percent to date, officials said.

In Texas, mail-in voting is open only to those who are over 65, will be away from home on Election Day or have a disability that prevents them from voting in person. Mail voting has for decades been the province of Republicans, who developed robust outreach programs and in many states championed legislation allowing the practice. In 2020, however, when Trump criticized mail balloting as an opportunity for fraud, many GOP voters began shunning the practice.

“It feels like people were just sitting up late at night thinking up ways to discourage people from voting,” said Jo Nell Yarbrough, a 76-year-old retired educator from Katy, Tex., west of Houston, who received a letter early this week from her local election office informing her that she had neglected to include an identification number on her application for a mail ballot.

Yarbrough sent out the application a second time and said she is optimistic that she’ll get the ballot in time to vote and mail it back again — and she is also willing to vote in person if necessary, once early voting begins Monday. But Yarbrough, a Democrat, said she fears that others might not be so persistent.

“It’s just making another hurdle for people,” she said. “And many people are going to give up and say, ‘I don’t feel like doing this or that.’ Not that it’s not worth it, but when you get older, you don’t want hassles.”

The GOP-controlled Texas legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott (R) enacted Senate Bill 1 in early September after Democrats tried unsuccessfullyto halt the bill bydenying Republicans a quorum in the House for months.The law went into effect in December despite entreaties from county election officials to give them more time to educate their staffs and voters. Lawmakers also denied local officials’ requests to push back the primary date.

As a result, election administrators have been scrambling to understand the new rules, procure new materials such as ballot requests and voter registration forms required under the law — and teach the public how it will affect them. They have relied on guidance from the secretary of state’s office, which in some cases has taken months to develop.

That fueled the confusion about how to process mail-in ballot applications, said Remi Garza, the elections chief in Cameron County, at the state’s southern tip.

“There was a lot of information that had not been distributed to all the 254 counties in Texas, so different administrators had different levels of information with respect to how you could process these applications,” said Garza, who leads the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.

That delay also contributed to a shortage of voter-registration cards as organizers with groups such as the League of Women Voters were unsure whether they could use their stockpiles of old cards or would have to wait to receive new forms from the state. The new form explains Senate Bill 1′s increased penalties for anyone providing false information on their voter registration application.

State officials told League organizers that they would not be able to provide the tens of thousands of registration cards they normally supply because of a nationwide paper shortage and rising costs.

Nancy Kral, an officer with the Houston chapter of the League of Women Voters, said the state’s top election official, Keith Ingram, told her during a telephone call that the state was not going to continue “subsidizing” the League’s registration efforts. The League provides voter registration cards to every participant in naturalization ceremonies in Houston — about 45,000 applications since June 2020.

A spokesman for the office of the secretary of state did not immediately respond to a request for comment on that exchange. But the spokesman, Sam Taylor, said the office has tried to inform election officials about all the changes. “Our office has been working as quickly and diligently as possible within a compressed time frame to provide guidance to both election officials and voters on changes to the voting process in Texas,” he said in an email. “Our goal from day one has always been to make sure that all eligible Texas voters can successfully cast a ballot, and that remains our goal going forward.”

Officials finally gave guidance — in either late December or early January, according to Taylor — that the old registration cards would be accepted this year. The deadline to register in time to vote in the primary was Jan. 31.Officials also provided more forms after the League threatened to sue under the National Voter Registration Act, which requires states to provide voter registration forms to third-party groups.

The new law is the target of multiple ongoinglawsuits, including one filed by the League of Women Voters, arguing that it violates the law by restricting voting access.

Kral has been disheartened by the hurdles Senate Bill 1 has erected — as well as the tone it seems to have set, she said. “It’s just so complicated and confusing,” she said. “There’s a perception that the confusion is not only in the name of election integrity but also about influencing who feels comfortable voting. I don’t think they’d admit to that, but that’s the message I’m receiving. They’re bullying.”

The late guidance from the state, as well as the paper crunch, has created stress for election officials, too. Garza, in Cameron County, described having to wait for instructions on the new mail-ballot envelope requirements before he could place his order. The new identification requirements necessitated an envelope redesign that includes a large privacy flap to cover the box where voters must provide their identification number.

Garza said his envelopes had still not arrived last week, when counties were supposed to begin mailing ballots to eligible voters. So on Saturday, he sent three of his staff members on a four-hour road trip to San Antonio, where a local printer had the envelopes in stock.

“We put them in the mail on Monday, and through the cooperation of our local postmaster, the voters began to receive them in their mailboxes today,” Garza said Wednesday. “That’s at least a week and a half later than we would have liked.” And it gives voters that much less time to fix any errors or omissions on their ballots, he added.

Several election administrators said they are optimistic that the rejection rate for both ballots and ballot applications will continue to decline as more come in — and as they get the word out to the public about the new rules.

But they are braced for another source of confusion, which is Senate Bill 1′s new penalty for poll workers who impede the ability of partisan poll watchers to observe voting locations on Election Day.

Davis, the top elections official in Williamson County, said the law has had a chilling effect on his ability to recruit poll workers, who have told him they worry that any effort to maintain order or protect voter privacy could be construed as a violation. But he also said he is optimistic that new mandatory training for poll watchers and poll workers will clarify what is acceptable behavior and what is not.

“Poll watchers are not our enemy — at least they’re not supposed to be our enemy,” Davis said. “The problem up until now is that in a poll watcher’s quest to see irregularities, they may not have had a terribly firm grasp on the ‘regular’ — how things are supposed to run in a polling place.” The training should improve that, he said.

Cain, the Republican lawmaker, said the new law “has ample protections for partisan election judges in dealing with disruptive election observers.”

Several election administrators said clashes between watchers and workers will be less likely on March 1, because it is a primary election. The real test of the new poll watcher rules will come in the general election in November, they said.

That’s just fine with Garza, who believes that voters — and election administrators — have enough to get used to right now.

“Elections are robust,” Garza said. “But they’re also very delicate. People need to mindful of how much things have changed since the last election. That’s what’s keeping me up at night.”

Civil rights groups sue to force Texas to release voter purge records

by Taylor Goldenstein, Austin Bureau Houston Chronicle

Keith Downey of Kashmere Gardens holds up a fist in solidarity during a rally sponsored by Beto O'Rourke's Powered By People at Finnigan Park in Houston's Fifth Ward on Sunday, June 13, 2021. The tour was hitting multiple counties in Texas to drum up support for voting rights.

photo credit: Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Feb. 2, 2022 Updated: Feb. 2, 2022 9:03 p.m.

A coalition of civil rights groups is suing the Secretary of State’s Office for withholding documents concerning a voter purge program targeting immigrants that was mandated by the new Republican-backed election law.

The law, passed after a heated partisan battle last summer, requires that the office conduct regular sweeps of the voter rolls to verify citizenship status by cross-checking data provided by the Texas Department of Public of Safety.

Without the data requested, the groups say they can’t confirm that the state is complying with a 2019 settlement agreement that came as a result of a botched voter purge effort that year. Early reports from county officials that the lists have included people who registered at their naturalization ceremonies have further raised attorneys’ suspicions.

Hearst Newspapers has requested similar information regarding the people who are at risk of having their voter registrations revoked and has also been told the records are exempt from public records laws. The secretary of state has asked the Attorney General’s Office to rule on the matter.

How many voters has the secretary of state flagged in the state’s largest counties?

The state has questioned the citizenship status of the following amounts of voters:

  • 3,063 Harris County
  • 1,385 Dallas County
  • 708 Tarrant County
  • 327 Collin County

Source: Texas Secretary of State

The Secretary of State’s Office declined to comment on the suit.

So far, 11,737 registered voters had been flagged as potential noncitizens, including about 2,900 Harris County residents. As of Dec. 31, 2,552 voter registration records had been canceled through the process, though the process is now on hold because of a federal law pausing any removals within 90 days of an election.

The majority of the removed voters never responded to a notice giving them 30 days to verify their citizenship, and 382 were confirmed to be noncitizens and removed from the rolls.

Harris County has so far been able to confirm the citizenship status of two voters. Most of the rest were sent notices in November, and of those, 263 have responded with proof of citizenship and will not be removed.

RELATED: Here comes another Texas voter purge, but this time with a wrinkle

The suit, filed Tuesday in federal court in Austin, alleges that the office is violating the National Voter Registration Act, a 1993 law that requires public disclosure of records pertaining to the maintenance of voter rolls.

The civil rights groups — including the ACLU, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and DĒMOS — had requested records showing every individual identified under the program as a potential noncitizen as well as the information the secretary of state used to determine a voter’s suspected citizenship status.

“Texas can’t shirk its obligations under federal law to release information about its new voter purge program,” said Ashley Harris, attorney at the ACLU of Texas, one of the plaintiff organizations. “The public deserves to know why Texas continues to falsely flag U.S. citizens for removal from the voter rolls.”

Removals are now on hold until at least after the March 1 primary election, if not the May 24 runoff, because of the freeze mandated by federal law within 90 days of an election. Anyone who received a notice within that time period will have that extra time to send their proof of citizenship.

‘They felt insulted’

State law allows voters whose registration was canceled under this process because they missed the deadline to later send proof of U.S. citizenship so they can be reinstated, including at the polling place.

Remi Garza, the president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators, said county officials often don’t have the data necessary to verify voters’ citizenship status on their own.

“We’re not generally set up as an investigative office,” Garza, who serves as election administrator for Cameron County. Aside from asking the voter for documentation, “we don’t have a whole lot of authority to request information.”

Some counties, like Bexar and Travis, happen to keep data on voters who register at naturalization ceremonies, but it’s not required by law. At the end of last year, the counties respectively found 15 and 17 percent of the flagged possible noncitizens filled out their registration applications at a ceremony, the Texas Tribune reported.

Travis County has not sent any letters to voters while it works to verify citizenship. For example, about 175 of the remaining 295 voters whose citizenship the county has not yet confirmed have Social Security numbers on file, which suggests they are citizens.

Multiple county officials said they had received calls from concerned and upset voters, many of whom had voted for years without issue, who didn’t understand why they were being asked to prove themselves.

“They felt insulted,” Garza said. “They were very emotional about having to provide this.”

Sloppy data in ’19 purge

In 2019, the state questioned the citizenship status of almost 100,000 voters. Later, state officials admitted in court that they did not try to weed out the immigrants who had been naturalized before sending lists of potential illegal voters to county elections officials. In fiscal year 2019, more than 97,000 individuals became naturalized U.S. citizens in Texas, according to the suit.

Several Latino civil rights groups sued, alleging it was discriminatory, and the state entered into a settlement agreement that put an end to that program and limited future reviews to only those who signed up to vote before they presented documents to DPS indicating that they were not citizens.

The debacle led then-Secretary of State David Whitley to apologize to state lawmakers, saying the lists should have been reviewed more carefully, and the Texas Senate ultimately forced him out of office.

MORE ON THAT: Texas official apologizes for inaccuracy of voter purge list

Republican lawmakers who supported the bill said the state has learned valuable lessons from that last attempt and insist the latest effort is better thought-out.

The plaintiff attorneys aren’t taking their word for it.

“The Secretary of State’s voter purge program once again surgically targets naturalized U.S. citizens for investigation and removal from the voter rolls,” said Nina Perales, MALDEF vice president of litigation. “Naturalized U.S. citizens have the same right to vote as all other citizens, and this new lawsuit seeks to ensure that Texas treats its voters fairly.”