Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.
If you would like to listen to the column, click on the play button below.
(Audio unavailable. Click here to listen on texastribune.org.)
If you say — or write — that it’s harder to vote in Texas today than it was a year ago, or four years ago, someone will tell you how easy it is and how full of beans you are.
But what are we supposed to make of the thousands of rejected mail-in ballots during the Republican and Democratic primaries this month? The Texas Tribune’s Alexa Ura and Mandi Cai reported that 18,742 ballots were tossed in 16 of the 20 Texas counties with the most voters. And the Associated Press reported, after a survey of 187 of the state’s 254 counties, that 22,898 mail ballots — 13% of the total — were rejected this year.
The normal rate of rejection is 2%. In the 2020 presidential election, the rejection rate was under 1%.
Republicans in the state Legislature (and above) wanted to tighten the screws on elections in Texas last year, their answer to unsubstantiated claims of widespread irregularities and cheating in the 2020 election. That complaint started with President Donald Trump’s anguish over his reelection loss to Joe Biden and his efforts to upend voting results in enough states to flip the results.
Trump won in Texas in a 2020 election that, all carping aside, marked a pretty good day for Republicans in the state. It was also an election that put a big dent in the popular Democratic idea that “Texas is not a Republican state — it’s a low-turnout state.” In that high (for Texas) turnout election, Republicans won all of the statewide elections and held or improved their numbers in the congressional delegation and the Texas Legislature.
But whining winners and whining losers are nothing new in politics, in Texas or anywhere else. With the former president stewing loudly about his loss, the state’s governor, lieutenant governor and top legislators came to Austin last year with reform on their minds.
Over noisy and temporarily effective opposition from elected Democrats, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a new Texas voting law that included, among other things, bans on around-the-clock voting, drive-thru voting, public officials sending vote-by-mail applications to voters who didn’t request them and changes to mail voting — including new ID requirements — that complicated longstanding practices and evidently confused a lot of voters.
Changes in voting laws often go to courts, and if they’re coming to the courts from Texas, the judges frequently find discrimination and disenfranchisement, whether the subject is voting, elections or redistricting. This new Texas law, being challenged on some of that same familiar ground, is no exception, but the rules have changed. Texas and other states with histories of discrimination used to be required to get federal permission before making changes. That’s no longer the case, so it’s easier for the state to make changes that might not have won approval in the past. While the judges are looking at the latest challenges, there’s an election underway, and in this first test of the new law, about one of every eight mail ballots was thrown out.
Every eighth person who voted by mail didn’t get their vote counted. Depending on where those voters live and how they voted, that’s a big enough number to change the results of some races. In Harris County, the AP reported, 19% of the mail ballots were tossed out, or nearly 7,000. By comparison, the state’s largest county rejected only 135 ballots in the last midterm election in 2018.
It’s not like Texas has a lot of votes to throw away. The turnout was dismal in these primaries: 82.5% of the state’s registered voters were no-shows. About 3 million voters took part: a little under 2 million in the Republican primary and just over 1 million in the Democratic primary. About 14.2 million of registered voters in Texas blew off the primaries.
Every voter in a low-turnout election has more clout; their choices are diluted by fewer other voters than in a high-turnout election. Trashing 23,000 votes in the wake of new legislative restrictions on voting almost sounds like a crime. The election-doubters who tightened Texas voting laws in the name of secure elections would have gone to town if they had found that many people disenfranchised by scammers.
They’d have found their long-sought but never-proved evidence of widespread election tampering. At least they know who did it this time — and so do the rest of us.