The number of rejected mail-in ballot applications is skyrocketing in Texas counties under new Republican-authored voting restrictions recently signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott.
The Texas crackdown on mail-in voting appears to be hitting hardest in the state's most densely populated counties, which also tend to have more voters of color and predominantly vote Democratic. In Travis County, which includes Austin, about half of all mail-in ballot applications have been rejected ahead of the state's March primaries, up from a rate of about 11% in the 2020 election cycle, according to the county clerk's office. About half of applications were rejected in Hidalgo County as well, according to elections administrator Yvonne Ramon.
Dallas County has rejected 43% of the applications it received, according to elections administrator Frank Phillips. In Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, more than half of the applications received on Monday were rejected under the "ridiculous" new law, said county elections administrator Jacque Callanen. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county is rejecting applications at a rate 700% higher than previous cycles because of the new "voter suppression laws that create a maze of technicalities." Harris County includes the city of Houston, and with 4.7 million residents has a higher population than 24 U.S. states.
"Voters are being mistreated in this circumstance," Travis County election clerk Dana DeBeauvoir told reporters on Tuesday. "My friends, this is what voter suppression looks like."
Many of the applications have been rejected because of the new identification requirements under Texas' new voting law, SB 1. Texas law already restricted mail-in voting by people under age 65 but the new law requires voters to include their driver's license or state ID number in their application, or the last four digits of their Social Security number. Counties must match those numbers against the information in each individual's voter file to approve their application.
Counties have struggled to match ID information because they lack certain data, particularly because voters are not required to provide both their state ID and Social Security numbers when they register to vote. The Texas secretary of state's office last year said more than 2 million of the state's 17 million registered voters did not have one of the two ID numbers on file and more than 250,000 did not have either number on file. The numbers have declined since then, but more than 700,000 voters still do not have both numbers on file and more than 100,000 don't have either, according to the secretary of state's office.
Nearly 500,000 Texas voters do not have a driver's license on file, which is the first number voters have to provide on their applications.
"The voter is playing a guessing game with this," DeBeauvoir said at a press conference. "The voter is trying to remember the number they signed up with at the voter registration office 10, 20, 30 years ago. 'What number did I use for the voter registration database? Was it my driver's license number? Did I use my Social Security number?' Do you remember what you signed up with? I didn't. I had to go back and look it up. Voters are going to have to play the same guessing game."
DeBeauvoir said some voters' applications were rejected because they used an older form that did not include the new voter ID requirement.
"A lot of people are still trying to use the old form because we've had a paper shortage, and printing of these new forms means they're scarce," she explained. "They're hard to come by. Nevertheless, you have to use the new form. If somebody sends in an old form, their ballot will be rejected."
Election officials have sought to help voters avoid mistakes that lead to rejections but the new law also bars election officials from sending unsolicited mail-in voting applications, which would include the updated form and instructions on how to properly fill it out.
"So far, we have not received instructions from the secretary of state's office to tell voters how to look up this information, and therein is the beginning of the problem for voters," DeBeauvoir said.
Republicans are pushing back on the concerns raised by election clerks. Republican Secretary of State John Scott said the rejection rate in Travis County was "surprising" and demanded a review of the applications.
"We call on Travis County to immediately review and re-examine the mail ballot applications in question to determine whether they were processed in accordance with state law, with the goal of reinstating and minimizing any disruption to eligible voters who have properly submitted their application for ballot by mail. We anxiously await the results of their re-processing of these mail ballot applications," he said in a statement.
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Voting rights advocates say the new law was largely aimed at restricting voting expansions in areas like Harris County, which sent mail-In ballot applications to every voter in 2020.
"They sent vote-by-mail applications to every registered voter in the county, and it caused state leadership to go berserk," James Slattery, the senior staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, told Texas Public Radio.
Isabel Longoria, the Harris County elections administrator, filed a federal lawsuit last month challenging the law's ban on sending out unsolicited mail ballot applications.
"SB 1 makes it a crime for me to do a critical part of my job, and it hurts the most vulnerable voters," Longoria said in a statement. "SB 1 subjects me to criminal prosecution for encouraging eligible voters to vote by mail so they may participate in our democracy — an option they have under Texas law."
While county officials are banned from sending out unsolicited mail ballot applications, candidates and political parties are not. The Texas Democratic Party said Monday it will send out hundreds of thousands of mail ballot applications to voters 65 and older.
"We can't rely on our Republican-run state government to do this for us," Rose Clouston, the party's voter protection director, said in a statement. "Texas Republicans have made it very clear that they only think Republicans should have the right to vote and it is therefore incumbent on us to help voters navigate the maze of voting laws Republicans have erected — too much is at stake if we don't."
Texas is one of 19 states that passed new voting restrictions last year that Democrats worry will suppress voter turnout, particularly among voters of color, especially after the U.S. Senate failed multiple times to pass new voting rights legislation in the face of a Republican filibuster.
Georgia, which also passed a sweeping new voting law last year, saw absentee ballot applications increase by 400% in November's municipal elections, with more than half of those rejected because they were submitted past the deadline set under the new law.
The laws were prompted by a campaign of false claims of voter fraud pushed by former President Donald Trump after his election defeat. Trump's ire was particularly directed at cities with large Black populations like Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee. President Joe Biden last week highlighted the importance of protecting Black voters from "new laws designed to suppress your vote" as he called on the Senate to change filibuster rules to pass voting rights legislation after Republicans repeatedly blocked debate on the bills. The renewed voting rights push died this week, at least for now, when Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., joined all 50 Republicans to block the filibuster changes.
"Across the United States, dozens of voter suppression laws have been introduced in state legislatures, with 34 laws enacted in 19 states," Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., said in a statement. "These laws are clearly aimed at restricting access to the ballot box, disproportionately impacting Black, Indigenous, Latino and other communities that have borne the historical weight of voting restrictions. The failure of the U.S. Senate to restore the Voting Rights Act and protect our communities from these restrictions is a failure of our nation's moral compass."
Read more on the battle over voting rights: