More than 12% of mail-in ballots were rejected in Texas under new GOP voting rules, final tally shows

People wait outside the Bexar County Elections Department in San Antonio to drop off their mail-in ballots, turn in their voter registration applications or be trained as poll workers. (Robin Jerstad For The Texas Tribune, Robin Jerstad For The Texas Tribune)

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

The votes of more than 24,000 Texans who tried to cast ballots by mail were thrown out in the March primary — a dramatic increase in rejected ballots in the first election held under a new Republican voting law.

Roughly 12.4% of mail-in ballots returned to the state’s 254 counties were not counted, according to figures released Wednesday by the Texas secretary of state. Just over 3 million people voted overall in the low-turnout primary.

Of 24,636 rejected mail-in ballots, 14,281 belonged to voters attempting to participate in the Democratic primary, and 10,355 belonged to voters in the Republican primary. But the rejection rate by party was fairly aligned; 12.9% of Democratic ballots were rejected and 11.8% of Republican ballots were rejected.

Put another way, 1 in every 8 mail-in voters lost their votes in their primary. The rate amounts to a significant surge in rejections compared with previous years, including the higher-turnout 2020 presidential election, when less than 1% of ballots were tossed.

Data previously collected by The Texas Tribune found rejection rates ranging from 6% to nearly 22% in 16 of the state’s 20 counties with the most registered voters, which overall rejected 18,742 mail-in ballots. In most cases, county officials said, ballots were rejected for failing to meet new, stricter ID requirements enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature last year that require voters to provide their driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number to vote by mail.

By contrast, 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 the higher-turnout 2020 election, 8,304 ballots were tossed statewide. In the 2022 primary — for which turnout fell shy of 18% — roughly three times as many ballots were rejected.

The data released by the secretary of state is the most official measure of the fallout of the tighter restrictions on voting by mail, which have so far proven the most frustrating aspect of Republicans’ voting law in its first test.

The requirements were part of a package of voting changes and restrictions enacted last year through legislation known as Senate Bill 1, which Republicans argued were needed to enhance the security of the state’s election even though they lacked evidence that previous elections had been foiled by widespread irregularities. Republican leaders who championed the law often said the measures in SB 1 would make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.

But the requirements vexed both voters and election workers responsible for processing mail-in ballots. In the lead-up to the election, county officials reported that qualified voters — some of whom had previously voted by mail many times — were being hampered by the law. In some cases, it took Texans as many as three attempts to get their votes through. Others abandoned the voting-by-mail option altogether, opting to vote in person instead for fear of being disenfranchised, county election officials previously said.

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.

Tina Tran, director of AARP Texas, called the reported numbers "deeply troubling and a sad indication that too many voters, including many older voters, are being disenfranchised" because of the changes to the state's vote-by-mail rules.

"With a primary runoff election approaching and the state’s general election scheduled for the fall, it is imperative that state and local election officials work extraordinarily hard and fast to better communicate new identification rules to voters," Tran said in a statement. "Lessons must be learned to prevent more voter disenfranchisement in the upcoming elections."

The office of Gov. Greg Abbott, who signed the bill into law, has not responded to requests for comment about the ballot rejection issues. The secretary of state's office has vowed to ramp up voter education about the rules ahead of the general election. But local election officials remained limited in how they can interact with prospective mail-in voters, including a new prohibition on "soliciting" requests for mail-in ballots from voters that county election administrators say they fear violating.

County election officials have also walked away from specific outreach to regular mail-in voters in light of the prohibition.

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.

We can’t wait to welcome you in person and online to the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, our multiday celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news — all taking place just steps away from the Texas Capitol from Sept. 22-24. When tickets go on sale in May, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.