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Vote-by-mail rejections are testing integrity of new Texas voting law

Texas election officials have had a relatively short window to implement SB 1's raft of requirements. The legislation was passed in the fall, instead of the spring's regular legislative session; the state and counties were also redrawing political boundaries that election officials then needed to incorporate into their systems.
NPR
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Texas election officials have had a relatively short window to implement SB 1's raft of requirements. The legislation was passed in the fall, instead of the spring's regular legislative session; the state and counties were also redrawing political boundaries that election officials then needed to incorporate into their systems.

With less than a month left to vote by mail in the March primary election, hundreds of applications for mail-in ballots are being rejected as both Texas voters and local election officials decipher new ID requirements enacted by Republican lawmakers.

Barely started down the path toward the first elections conducted under voting restrictions enacted last year by Republican lawmakers, Texas voters and local election officials have found themselves enveloped in a fog of errors, delays and miscommunications as they navigate new rules for casting votes by mail.

Only a small slice of the state's electorate is allowed to cast absentee ballots, and the trickle of requests for mail-in ballots that began in early January is now swelling into the usual pre-election flood.

But hundreds of applications are being rejected — in many cases because voters appear to not know the new rules. Local election workers themselves are still deciphering the procedures, and say they've been hampered by a paucity of help and information from the Texas secretary of state's office. Meanwhile, the state is scrambling to provide training under the crush of advising counties on implementing a multitude of election changes.

“We are bombarded,” said Yvonne Ramon, the Hidalgo County elections administrator. “To try to review Senate Bill 1 alone was a monster, and it wasn’t just on us. It was on the state. It was on every [election official] at every level.”

Signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in September, the voting law known as Senate Bill 1 contained an array of new restrictions on the state’s voting process and narrowed local control of elections.

Among its many provisions — and the earliest to be tested — are new rules for voting by mail. Absentee voters are now required to include a state identification number like a driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number on their applications for a mail-in ballot. Those numbers must match information in a voter’s record or their application will be rejected.

Regular mail-in voters must submit new applications each year, and when counties began accepting them this year, the rejection rates were staggering. Hundreds of applications were deficient, in some cases missing an ID number. In other cases, voters had listed a number that didn’t appear to be on file with the local elections office.

The secretary of state’s office has been working to backfill its records to include both driver’s license numbers and Social Security numbers for most voters, but various Texas counties — including some of the state’s largest — did not know they were supposed to check the state's database along with their own when trying to validate an application.

Election officials across the state said they either weren’t aware the driver’s license numbers had been uploaded to the state database, known by election administrators as TEAM, or weren’t aware that the new numbers would not sync with their local databases. To them, it appeared the numbers were missing from a voter’s record.

“There were several large counties that are offline that were not aware that they'd have to go beyond their internal systems, and I'm one of them,” said Chris Davis, the Williamson County elections administrator. (Counties that use a local database are known as “offline counties.”)

The discrepancy helped drive an initial 50% rejection rate of applications in Travis County, the “vast majority” of which officials attributed to the new rules, before offline counties learned the new driver’s license numbers had not been pushed to their local databases. The rejection rate had dropped to 27% in figures Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir released Tuesday, though the total number of applications the county received had more than doubled by then.

The rejection issues led to a public spat between DeBeauvoir, a Democrat, who criticized the state for not providing counties with comprehensive guidance, and the secretary of state’s office, which zeroed in on the county’s rejection of an “unusually large” share of applications in a press release calling on officials to correct “erroneous” rejections.

But the information gap over matching ID numbers went beyond Travis County. While “waiting to get clear instructions” from the state, Vona Hudson, the election administrator in rural Tom Green County, said she was running into ID issues with 40% to 50% of the applications coming in.

Hudson didn’t get clarity on the syncing problems until a last-minute webinar held by the secretary of state's office Tuesday morning to address “frequently asked questions” about the new ID requirements.

In a statement this week, the governor’s office put the blame for issues with the new rules on county officials “erroneously interpreting the law” instead of asking the state for assistance.

“The bottom line is that counties should not be rejecting valid mail ballot applications,” said Nan Tolson, a spokesperson for the governor. "The Secretary of State’s office will continue to work with counties across the state to combat the misinformation being spread by county election officials and ensure that all valid mail ballot applications are processed."

But beyond the confusion over how to match numbers, early figures released by some of the state’s largest counties showed that a bigger problem was applications coming in with no ID numbers on them at all.

For example, Bexar County initially rejected 125 applications because voters provided a driver’s license number that was not in their voter record, while 200 were rejected because the ID section was not filled out. Thirty applications were rejected because the voter submitted an outdated application form that didn’t include the new ID field.

Of the 208 applications Harris County initially rejected based on the new rules, 137 were rejected because voters had not filled out the new ID requirements. As of Jan. 14, county officials said they had rejected another 172 applications that lacked ID numbers.

In its update Tuesday, Travis County said about half of the 509 applications it had rejected did not include any ID information.

County officials said they were also hamstrung in how much education they could provide voters about the new requirements. In SB 1, Republican lawmakers made it a state jail felony for an election official to “solicit the submission” of an application to vote by mail if the voter did not request it — a broad prohibition election officials said has made them fearful that once unremarkable voter outreach efforts could now be construed as criminal.

SB 1 also made it a state jail felony for local election officials to proactively send applications to voters who did not request them, even if voters automatically qualify to vote by mail because of age. Political parties can still send out unsolicited applications on their own dime.

“It’s understandable if you're focusing on what’s most important in a given week or a given month that you might lose track of some of these other issues, and I think that goes for secretary of state as well,” Remi Garza, the president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators, said of the miscommunication between the state and the counties.

But this was a foreseeable situation, said Garza, who serves as the elections administrator for Cameron County.

Voting rights advocates have panned state Republican leadership over the issues, both because the problems were forewarned and because the law’s implementation date has not allowed election officials enough time to roll out its new requirements. Over the last year, advocates questioned how voters were expected to know which ID number might be on their voter record when they aren’t required to provide both while registering to vote.

Lawmakers bear “the responsibility to foresee problems in the implementation of a law," said James Slattery, a senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, who testified on the ID issues at the Legislature.

“They are now reaping what they've sown,” said Slattery. “Though I should say it’s really the voter reaping what they've sown, which is the tragedy of all this. At the moment, it’s the voters that are facing the consequences.”

Texas election officials have had a relatively short window to implement SB 1's raft of requirements. The legislation was passed in the fall, instead of the spring's regular legislative session; the state and counties were also redrawing political boundaries that election officials then needed to incorporate into their systems.

Interpreting the law and providing guidance on how to enforce it falls to the secretary of state, the state’s chief elections officer, whose office in the last few months has been responsible for updating hundreds of election forms, revising various handbooks for election workers, creating checklists and advisories to address various changes to the ballot counting process, and providing technical and legal support to both party and county officials ahead of the primaries.

The compressed timeline has specifically compounded the challenges around the new ID requirements.

The state was responsible for the creation of a new online portal mail-in voters can use to track and fix issues with their applications and ballots. But when the new online system launched mid-January, counties had not yet received training from the state on how to use it. The secretary of state’s office hosted its first webinar for counties on how to use the ballot tracker on Thursday — a week after it went live.

The office had also created a new form for county officials to use to inform voters of defective applications with instructions on how to fix errors, including through the new tracker on the state’s website. But the letter pointed voters to a voting homepage that until last week lacked a direct link to the tracker. A spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office said earlier this month that they were in the process of updating the layout of the website.

Additionally, the revised application for a mail-in ballot and the specialized envelope to return completed ballots, which now must also include the ID numbers, were not finalized until December. This meant county officials were unable to order updated mailing materials until soon before they needed to start sending them to voters.

Tarrant County felt the time crunch in preparing to mail out ballots to overseas voters, which counties were required to do by Jan. 15. Speaking before the county commissioners court last week, elections administrator Heider Garcia said the envelopes weren’t delivered to the election office until the afternoon before the deadline.

“There have been a lot of things with these changes to the law that have been kind of a photograph finish over the last few weeks,” Garcia said at the hearing.

The pressure to implement the law has been felt intensely by election administrators in counties that are running local special elections before the March primary.

In Tom Green County, Hudson has been scrambling to obtain updated materials for a Jan. 29 election to fill a spot on the San Angelo City Council. The county has been waiting on its printing vendor who has been waiting on an order of the specific paper stock needed to print the voting materials.

The new ID rules have also forced new, specialized printing jobs of the applications and envelopes for mail-in ballots so that they can be sealed to protect a voter’s sensitive information while the materials travel through the mail.

When she couldn’t get new applications from the vendor in time, Hudson made Xerox copies of a print out on regular paper and mailed them to voters with a postage-paid, self-addressed envelope to place them in. When it became clear she wouldn’t receive the revised ballot envelopes with enough time to get them to voters, she created a separate document for voters to record their ID numbers that she’s sending out with old envelopes.

Hudson said the implementation of SB 1 has left her “between a rock and a hard place.” Her proposed resolution means she can’t use the state’s prescribed forms, but she knows the voters in her county who rely on mail-in ballots, including many who are homebound, won’t be able to participate in the election otherwise.

“I think all of us, including the secretary of state, are kind of in a perfect storm, if you will, trying to get this implemented as quickly as we can when also facing shortages in equipment, paper,” Hudson said. “I wouldn’t want to be implementing as much as the secretary of the state is having to do. But do I wish we had gotten some things a little faster? Absolutely, because I think it would be better for our voters.”

Disclosure: The Texas Secretary of State has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/01/24/texas-vote-by-mail-rejections/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at https://www.texastribune.org.