Pam Gaskin has been handing out campaign flyers since she was nine years old—the year, she says, that she was first allowed to walk down the street without supervision. Now 74, Gaskin, a resident of Fort Bend County and a member of the League of Women Voters, has helped register voters for decades.
But this year, she says, is different. An expansive voting law that Texas enacted earlier this year has led to widespread confusion among voters attempting to vote by mail in today’s primary, leading to sky-high ballot-application and ballot rejection rates, according to local election officials. “I know how to read and follow directions,” Gaskin says. “This is a form that is designed incorrectly.”
Harris County, which is home to Houston, reported on Feb. 22 that nearly a third of the mail ballots they’ve received have been rejected, due to the state’s new ID requirements, according to the county election office’s spokesperson. Many voters who are not accustomed to providing their driver’s license numbers or the last four digits of their social security numbers have left the fields blank, while others have provided accurate ID numbers that do not necessarily match what election officials have on file.
The result, election officials say, is an “alarmingly high” rejection rate.
Problems with mail ballots cast a pall on the Texas primary on March 1. The first primary in the nation this cycle marks a test for Attorney General Ken Paxton, who faces a host of well-known challengers, including George P. Bush, the grandson of George H.W. Bush and Eva Guzman, a former Texas Supreme Court Justice, and for other Trump-endorsed candidates down ticket. On the Democratic side, Beto O’Rourke is expected to push through as a candidate for governor, while several progressive Democrats, backed by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, are vying for key congressional seats.
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On Feb. 17, Harris County officials wrote to the Department of Justice to report the high number of rejections for vote-by-mail applications and ballots. The letter noted that as of Feb. 15, 14% of the 33,270 vote-by-mail applications that Harris County received had been flagged for rejection because of the new law’s identification requirements and 41% had been flagged for rejection for any reason, including voter identification requirements. The rejection rate for mail ballots was also high: 35.5% of the 9,809 mail ballots the county received were flagged for rejection, due to the new ID requirements, as of Feb. 15.
“The rejection rates should not be anywhere near that high and it’s more akin to what we see in authoritarian states, not in free and fair elections,” says James Slattery, a senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. And it’s not just Harris County but counties across the state that are reporting relatively higher rejection rates, he adds.
Gaskin, who says she has voted in almost every election that she was eligible for in her lifetime, saw her mail ballot application rejected twice. The first time, she filled out an outdated form that the county had posted on its website. The second time, she included her driver’s license number, rather the the last four digits of her social security number, on her application. Election officials told her later that because she had used a different ID number when she first registered to vote, more than four decades ago, her records did not match.
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That’s a common problem, Harris County election officials say. “Either people are not filling out the field altogether or they’re putting the last four digits of their social security number but it doesn’t match what we have on record. It could be accurate but it’s not on file,” says Leah Shah, a spokesperson for the Harris County Elections Administrator’s office.
The issue may not be isolated to Texas going forward. A few other states, including Iowa, have been considering provisions that are similar to the Texas law. They too require that voters provide additional identification and complete other steps for mail ballots, which voting rights advocates say have led to confusion. “The absurdity of other states enacting the same requirements while this state is melting down is just crazy,” says Slattery. “It’s an alarm bell now that these bills are popping up in other states. If Texas is somehow seen as a model, you’re going to see mass disenfranchisement across the country.”
Stricter voter ID requirements for mail ballots have led to higher rejection rates in the past. Arkansas enacted an ID law in 2014 that required voters to submit a copy of their photo ID when returning their ballot via mail, after which rejection rates for absentee ballots doubled from 3% in 2012 to almost 6% in 2016.
Florida’s legislature scaled back a proposal similar to Texas’ on Feb. 22 that would have added similar ID requirements and an additional envelope following criticism from voting rights groups in the state who pointed at Texas as an example of how the measure could go wrong. Lawmakers then changed the bill language to instead direct the secretary of state to work on a plan that would “prescribe the use of a Florida driver license number, Florida identification card number, Social Security number, or any part thereof to confirm the identity of each elector returning a vote-by-mail ballot.”
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Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, describes provisions like the Texas one and accompanying voting restrictions as “death by a thousand cuts.” “When you put so many restrictions on the election that a certain percentage of people can’t vote or don’t have votes counted then the election is no longer a reflection of the will of the people,” Albert says.
Liz Avore, vice president of law and policy at the Voting Rights Lab explains that “there are a lot of states that securely verify absentee ballots without this type of requirement. But there are ways to implement this type of requirement better than how Texas has been handling it.”
“A critical piece of access to democracy is having your vote counted when it’s cast,” Avore says. “That’s something Texas is failing its citizens. Something states should be considering when passing new restrictions is properly taking time to implement them and putting in funding and effort.”
Slattery argues that the situation in Texas could have been avoided if Congress had passed federal legislation such as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which could have blocked Texas’ expansive voting law from taking effect. “We are going through this because 50 Republican Senators—and Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema—decided that the filibuster was more important than protecting voters.”
Polls in Texas will close at 8 p.m. E.T. across most of the state and results are expected within the next 24 hours.
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