A rapid rise in rejected mail-in voting applications and ballots. Limited resources among election workers. Confusion galore, and a March 1 primary election quickly approaching.
This is the reality in Texas as SB 1—a controversial voting bill signed into law last year—goes into effect. With primary voting already underway, election officials, advocates, and everyday voters are struggling to navigate the newly enacted rules, with little room for error.
And folks on the ground are sounding the alarm, concerned about disenfranchisement among perfectly eligible voting populations.
“Honestly, it’s been an absolute nightmare,” Charlie Bonner, communications director for the voting-rights group MOVE Texas, told The Daily Beast.
SB 1 is jam-packed with new rules for voting throughout Texas. Among those is a provision requiring voters to provide a driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on their mail-in voting applications and ballots. The number provided must match what the state has on file for any given voter.
Opponents worry that’s a gateway to rejection—with the potential for mail-ballot applications or mail-ballots themselves to be bounced because their identification information doesn’t match the voter’s file. Advocates are also concerned about a lack of awareness of the new law, potentially causing voters to unknowingly leave the identification information off their forms.
The current rejection rate for mail-ballot applications in Texas seems to support that worry.
Officials across the state are reporting higher-than-usual defect rates for mail-ballot applications. Leah Shah, spokesperson for Harris County Elections, told The Daily Beast her county is seeing an 11 percent rejection rate specific to the new laws. Last month, officials in Travis County said they were rejecting about half of the mail-in ballot applications they received, according to the Texas Tribune, while 325 applications were rejected in Bexar County for failing to provide an ID number or providing one that was not on file.
Texas voters are entitled to correct their mail-in voting applications or ballots if there’s an error. But elections administrators say the process for alerting voters to errors lacks uniformity from county to county, largely depending on a county’s budget and resources.
Chris Davis, the elections administrator for Williamson County, said he’s “blessed” to have a staff of 15 and ample resources. Shah said her office has been able to double its call-center team and has mail-ballot staffers who often work 12-hour days “in order to go above and beyond” in contacting voters.
But not all of Texas’ 254 counties have the wherewithal.
“We're able to because we are the largest county in the state and the fourth in the country,” Shah said. But smaller or less populous counties don’t always have those same resources.
As Texas’ March 1 primaries loom, elections administrators are preparing for an influx in rejected mail-in ballots, which are also subject to the new ID rules enacted by SB 1.
Davis said it’s already happening in his county.
Williamson County has sent out about 3,000 ballots, Davis said in an interview on Feb. 8, and received about 200 back. So far, they’re seeing a roughly 25 percent defect rate in returned ballots, with voters often forgetting to include their identification number on the carrier-envelope.
“It’s real. That’s a higher off-the-bat defect rate than we’ve seen in previous elections,” Davis added. “And I have little doubt it’s because, well, this is a new law and it’s gonna take some time I think for voters to adapt to it.”
While voters have access to a new online ballot-tracking system and are allowed to correct mistakes, their window to do so narrows by the day. And those who can’t correct their ballots in time may need to resort to in-person voting.
In Texas, only specific groups of individuals qualify for mail-in voting in the first place: those over 65 years old, people with disabilities, pregnant women who are close to their due date, people who are out of town, or people who are in jail but still eligible to vote.
When mail-in voting fails for members of these groups, physical barriers often put in-person voting out of reach, advocates say.
“The idea that someone might still be able to go vote in person as a fail-safe I think ignores the notion that the very individuals who are allowed to vote by mail in Texas are people for whom getting to the polls is perceived to be difficult, if not impossible,” Tommy Buser-Clancy, senior staff attorney at ACLU Texas, told The Daily Beast.
The Texas secretary of state on Feb. 7 announced the identification number voters provide does not have to be the number they originally registered to vote with—but it does need to be “associated with your voter registration record.” Voters can include both their social security number and their driver’s license number on an application in the hopes at least one matches what’s on file.
Amir Badat, an attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told The Daily Beast that interpretation of the law by the secretary of state “seems inconsistent with the language of SB 1.” The secretary of state’s interpretation could also raise questions about some of the ballot applications and ballots that have been rejected already.
“Interpretation of the code is evolving as people have deeper and deeper discussions into what the impacts and the practical application of the changes are,” president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators Remi Garza told The Daily Beast.
A federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction to a part of SB 1 that prohibited election officials from soliciting or encouraging mail-ballots as a means of voting.
Mail-in ballots aren’t the only source of confusion for Texans this election cycle. SB 1 also now requires those assisting voters with disabilities to take an oath promising they will only help with “reading the ballot to the voter, directing the voter to read the ballot, marking the voter’s ballot, or directing the voter to mark the ballot.”
Advocates say this limits the scope of assistance for voters with disabilities by blocking anyone from helping to ensure ballots are properly received and cast, too.
“This oath has to be given under the penalty of perjury—it essentially creates a chilling effect on individuals who might be providing voter assistance for the fear that their assistance might be misconstrued as something that's illegal,” Badat said.
The Department of Justice in November filed a lawsuit against Texas over the alleged restriction of access for voters with disabilities, saying assisters are improperly blocked from “answering basic questions, responding to requests to clarify ballot translations or confirming that voters with visual impairments have marked a ballot as intended.”
SB 1 also rolled back some options for early voting, which begins in Texas on Feb. 14. The law banned drive-in voting, which was popularized during the pandemic. It also limits early-voting hours to 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and bans 24-hour voting centers, which were used in Harris County during the 2020 election.
“Voters of color utilize those methods of voting disproportionately because voters of color are more likely to have working hours that are not the traditional 9-to-5 working hours,” Badat told The Daily Beast.
SB 1 does partially expand early-voting access by requiring some smaller counties to provide at least 12 hours per weekday of early voting during the second week of Texas’ window.
Election officials serve as the typical point of contact for voters and are working to educate the public about changes made by SB 1 ahead of the March 1 primary. Garza also commended Secretary of State John Scott’s office for hosting webinars and sessions with election administrators, saying “communication from the Secretary of State's office has improved and increased significantly since the start of the year… it’s been very helpful.”
Advocates are working to raise awareness of changes made by SB 1. MOVE Texas, for instance, is training young people across the state on how to discuss these new laws with other voters in an effort to boost preparedness.
Texas Assistant Secretary of State for Communications Sam Taylor told The Daily Beast in a statement, “Our office has been working as quickly and diligently as possible within a compressed time frame to provide guidance to both election officials and voters on changes to the voting process in Texas. Our goal from day one has always been to make sure that all eligible Texas voters can successfully cast a ballot, and that remains our goal going forward.”
But Bonner says, “It's going to take real investments from organizations like [MOVE Texas], from organizations around the country, to make sure that Texas voters are not left behind in this moment.”
Some election officials think confusion over the new voting rules is, in part, a result of a rushed rollout, leaving the secretary of state little time to compile necessary guidance.
“If the secretary of state’s office had more time to review the changes that the legislature put in place before the March primaries, that confusion would have been greatly reduced,” Garza said.
Others insist timing isn’t the issue. They believe the law is doing exactly what it intended.
Buser-Clancy argued the state legislature received ample warning about the impending impacts of SB 1—but passed it anyway. “It is not a quirk in the new law. It is part of the new law that more and more mail-ballot applications are going to be rejected arbitrarily,” he said.
“Confusion was always the point,” said Bonner. “This was never actually about making sure that we can have free and fair elections. That was never the intention.”