New voting rules in Texas are tripping up voters at an unusual rate, putting thousands of ballots at risk of being thrown out if voters don’t correct them quickly, multiple county officials said.
Mail-in voting began in January ahead of the state primaries on March 1 — the first contest of the 2022 midterm cycle — with early in-person voting beginning this week. Already, thousands of ballots have failed to meet the state’s new identification requirements, according to election officials.
Officials said they return ballots and sometimes call and email voters to alert them of problems with an explanation of how those ballots should be corrected. But they also expressed concern that many voters will not cast their ballots in time.
In El Paso County, nearly half of all mail-in ballots returned so far have not met new ID requirements, while 35% of ballots have been flagged for rejection. in Harris County for similar reasons, county officials told NBC News.
Republicans in the state legislature overhauled Texas’ election code last year as former President Donald Trump continued to make believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Among other changes, voters are now being asked to include some form of identification — such as a driver’s license number — on mail-in ballot applications and the envelope they use to return their completed ballots. The law also limited early voting hours and empowered partisan poll watchers.
Texas Democrats fought the new election law for months, arguing the changes would disenfranchise voters and were unnecessary in light of extensive evidence that voter fraud is incredibly rare. (Texas’ own comprehensive fraud hunt in 2020 closed only 16 minor cases, according to the Houston Chronicle.)
This is the first statewide election since the law, known as Senate Bill 1, was implemented in December, and early data indicates that Texans are at the taken with the changes.
Harris County, home to the city of Houston and more than 4 million residents, was the first to report a high rejection rate for mail-in ballots. The count was inundated with thousands of mail-in ballot questions in January and forced to quickly hire new staff to deal with the wave of work created by voter confusion and rejected ballots, according to the election administrator of Harris County, Isabel Longoria.
“We have so many eligible, real, good voters who have always been part of the process who are now getting caught up in this extra layer of bureaucracy,” Longoria told NBC News.
As of Tuesday, 9,809 ballots were received by election officials, and of those more than a third (3,491) were flagged for errors, according to Longoria. Sixteen were flagged for a problem with their signature, while the other 3,475 ballots were flagged for identification issues. They were sent back to voters to be corrected.
On the same day, approximately 14% of postal voting requests were rejected during the Identification requirements. That’s double the rate of rejected nominations in the 2018 midterm elections, according to county data.
Sometimes it’s as simple as election officials who don’t yet have a driver’s license number on file for a voter.
“The classic example: when you registered to vote decades ago, you put in your social security number, but now when you apply to vote by mail, you put in your driver’s license number. two numbers are true, legal and correct for the voter, but we are not allowed to match those numbers,” Longorio said.
For this reason, the office of the Texas secretary of state has recommended voters include multiple ID numbers on their ballot applications, according to Remi Garza, president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators and election administrator. of Cameron County, Texas.
If voters do not include the same numbers on the ballot that they used on their application, officials said their ballots would be rejected.
Garza said not all counties contact voters to fix their ballots in the same way.
“It’s important to remember that Texas has 254 counties, and each faces its own unique challenges in implementing these new changes,” he said. “The short lead time the Legislative Assembly has given to implement it has created its own challenges.”
Cameron County, a South Texas county with a population of more than 400,000, has so far reported 41% of ballots received for identification issues, Garza said Thursday.
Voters can correct their ballot requests until Friday, February 18, the deadline to request a mail-in ballot ahead of the March 1 primary; Texans are asked to postmark their absentee ballots by 7 p.m. on primary day, but some voters will be able to correct ballot errors until March 7.
In El Paso County, which has more than 800,000 residents, about 49 percent of mail-in ballots are flagged for rejection; election workers return ballots and call voters to urge them to correct the error — a process known as healing — in person. But historically, the number of voting errors corrected by voters before the primary has tended to be low.
“Usually a small portion will cure their rejected ballots. However, we haven’t seen that many rejections and it depends on the voter,” said County Elections Administrator Lisa Wise.
Travis County, the fifth-largest in Texas by population, said it saw about 17% of returned ballots flagged for missing ID numbers. About 7% of mail-in ballot requests were rejected, according to county spokeswoman Victoria Hinojosa. Voters are notified of errors, she added.
In Montgomery County, Texas, about 10% of absentee ballot applications and ballots have been flagged for rejection, according to county election administrator Suzie Harvey, who said it was of approximately 140 ballots. The county is home to over one million people.
These rejection rates are all significantly higher than those typically seen in Texas general elections.
In the 2020 election, nearly one million Texans voted by mail. Only 0.8% of voter ballots, 8,304 ballots, were rejected, according to data compiled by the United States Election Assistance Commission. In 2018, 9,377 ballots were rejected for a rate of 1.76%.
Some officials have observed rejection rates for mail-in ballots dropping over time, suggesting voters are adjusting.
“Our vote-by-mail rejection rate started at about 10%, but after the first batch it dropped to about 4%,” said Bruce Sherbet, an election administrator in Collin County, Texas, which is home to more than a million people.
Similarly, 21% of ballot applications were rejected in January in Fort Bend and 13% were rejected the first week of February, according to John Oldham, electoral administrator for Fort Bend County.
He added that the county has already faced delays in sending out ballot applications due to paper supply issues and the time it took to redesign ballots to comply with the new law. He said the county doesn’t yet have a ballot rejection rate, but is “definitely” seeing higher rejection rates than usual.
While many opponents of the restrictive Elections Act said it would disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color, Oldham said older voters were hit hardest.
“Really, it affects older people. Eight-five percent of voters who vote by mail are people over the age of 65, so they are the ones who are really affected, whether they are Republicans or Democrats,” he said. “In fact, in this first month and a half, we rejected more Republican applications than Democratic applications.”
Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat seeking to challenge Republican Governor Greg Abbott in November, criticized the high rejection rates in a statement to NBC News.
“This voter suppression is deliberate and intentional, working exactly as Greg Abbott intended,” he said, adding that his campaign was aimed at mobilizing voters to ensure their ballots were counted.
Abbott did not respond to a request for comment.