Thousands of Texas mail-in votes still in jeopardy under new GOP voting restrictions

A Harris County elections staff member works deep in the warehouse at the Elections Technology Center in Northwest Houston on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. (Annie Mulligan For The Texas Tribune, Annie Mulligan For The Texas Tribune)

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Election day has come and gone, but it remains unclear how many Texans were unable to vote after trying to cast ballots by mail under new Republican laws restricting that voting option.

In the first test of new voting rules passed last year, the votes of several thousand Texans remain in jeopardy because they failed to comply with stricter ID requirements for voting by mail. Some frustrated voters had to overcome multiple hurdles to correct mistakes in time for their votes to be counted. Others gave up on voting absentee altogether.

The scale of disenfranchisement will not be known for at least another week, as voters still have time to cure ballots that were found defective because they did not include newly required ID numbers. But in various counties, the percentage of ballots being rejected has ballooned well beyond previous rejection rates. Because of Texas’ strict eligibility criteria for voting by mail, older voters and voters with disabilities will be the most affected.

“People have said this law was enacted to stop voter fraud, but honestly we've just seen voters who are qualified have to do the process twice, sometimes three times. Sometimes they quit,” said Lisa Wise, the elections administrator for El Paso County, where more than 1,000 ballots have been initially rejected.

Heading into primary election day Tuesday, counties reported initial rejection rates anywhere between 8% to 30%, with the ID requirements tripping up a significant share of voters in counties large and midsize, red and blue.

By contrast, less than 2% of mail-in ballots were rejected in the 2018 primary election, according to data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. The count of ballots marked for rejection because of the ID rules in Harris County alone — 11,135 as of Feb. 28 — easily surpassed the total number of ballots rejected statewide — roughly 9,400 — in 2018. The number of faulty ballots in Harris may still grow as late-arriving mail-in ballots are processed this week.

For weeks, elections officials across the state have been delivering the news of rejected applications to vote by mail, and then rejected ballots, to voters who flunked new state rules that require them to provide their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number. Those numbers must then match the information on a voter’s records.

The requirement repeatedly thwarted Pam Gaskin from even obtaining a mail-in ballot. A longtime absentee voter, her first application was rejected after the 74-year-old resident of Fort Bend County downloaded an outdated application from the county’s website that didn’t include the new ID field.

Her second application was rejected even though she included her driver’s license number — the first ID number voters are instructed to provide — because the county only had her Social Security number on file. That’s the ID she used when she first registered to vote 46 years ago. Gaskin told the county worker who informed her of her rejection that she couldn’t recall what she had for dinner the night before, much less what number she had put down on her original voter registration.

“I know how to vote. I know the rules of voting,” Gaskin said. “This is not making anything secure. This is just making it hard, and I think the Legislature has done political malpractice quite frankly on the citizens of Texas.”

Gaskin was among the several thousands of voters whose applications were rejected earlier this year. Some voters faced mismatch issues like Gaskin, but in many cases voters didn’t provide any ID information at all.

An early wave of rejected requests sent voting advocates and county election officials into a scramble, trying to get out word of the new requirements even as faulty applications were already on their way to county offices. Concerns the requirements would lead to a spike in rejected ballots, on which voters also had to provide the ID numbers, reached top state officials. That included Texas Secretary of State John Scott, the state’s chief elections officer, who on a Feb. 10 virtual town hall admitted he was worried mail-in voters would leave off the new ID information on completed ballots.

“That’s the part of this that is my biggest concern going forward as we get into the election cycle,” Scott said.

By then, his concern had already come to fruition. Earlier in the day, Harris County had reported they had flagged more than 1,000 mail-in ballots — 40% of the mail-in ballots returned up to that point — to be sent back to voters because they lacked an ID number. During the town hall, Fort Bend elections administrator John Oldham said about half of the 500 ballots returned to his county up to then were missing ID numbers.

“We hope that number will go down, but I fear that it won’t,” Oldham said.

The number of rejected ballots would only continue to grow. Even counties that saw few rejections among applications began to grapple with high rates of faulty ballots. Under the state’s new rules, officials cannot accept ballots without the ID information on the return envelopes containing the ballot. If there was enough time for the voter to send back a corrected envelope, officials were required to mail them back.

As in-person early voting began, county election officials said some voters started surrendering their mail-in ballots, opting to vote in person instead for fear of being disenfranchised. In Bexar County, officials said they saw an increase in curbside voting among voters who had been unable to get through the new ID requirements.

Other voters didn’t have that option. Once officials determine there’s not enough time to mail back faulty ballots, voters instead must visit their county elections office in person to correct the issue or use the state’s new online ballot tracker to verify the missing information.

For Elva Roy, the correction process required a 60-mile drive round-trip from her Arlington home to the elections office in Tarrant County.

The 76-year-old retiree had been forewarned about the new rules so she made sure to include both ID numbers when she returned her mail-in ballot. But last Tuesday, the county called to inform her that, like many other voters, she had missed the ID field under the flap of her envelope where the numbers were supposed to go.

“I’ve voted by mail a lot of times,” Roy said. “There's never been an issue before.”

The ID rules are part of a far-reaching voting law passed last year by Texas Republicans who pursued new restrictions on voting and further tightened election rules under the mantle of election integrity, despite no evidence of widespread irregularities. Throughout that monthslong legislative push, voting rights advocates, Democrats and local officials cautioned that the changes risked disenfranchising the people whose votes lawmakers claimed they wanted to safeguard. That included specific warnings about fallout that could come from the new ID requirements.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, the Mineola Republican who authored the law, often said the new measures were aimed at wrongdoers trying to subvert the system and not at individual voters. His defense of the legislation — echoed by Republican leaders including Gov. Greg Abbott — was marked by a refrain that it would make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.

Hughes’ office and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who backed him while presiding over the Senate, did not respond to requests for comment about the rejection issues. A spokesperson for the governor’s office directed questions about high rejection rates to the Texas secretary of state.

Abbott’s office previously blamed local election administrators for issues with rejected applications, even though at the time a significant portion of the rejections had come because voters seemed unaware of the new requirements.

Breakdowns in mail-in voting have proven the most frustrating aspect of the Republicans’ voting law in its first test during a low-turnout election, exasperating both voters foiled by the rule changes and election workers processing their requests to vote by mail.

The timeline for implementing the new ID requirements was short, with new applications to vote by mail starting to come in just a month after the law went into effect and before local election officials were fully trained on how to handle rejections. The array of election changes contained in the law slowed the guidance locals expected from the Texas secretary of state’s office. And new restrictions on county election workers left little room for voter education.

The voting law also prohibits workers from “soliciting” requests for mail-in ballots from voters, which election administrators say has limited their outreach to voters about the new requirements.

“I’m concerned for my voters. This office's main goal is to serve our voters and in lots of ways it has not been able to happen with this bill,” said Trudy Hancock, the elections administrator for Brazos County. “Just because something looks good and sounds good on paper doesn't mean it's realistic or easy to implement.”

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.