Election day has come and gone, but it remains unclear how many Texans were unable to vote after trying to cast ballots by mail under new Republican laws restricting that voting option.
In the first test of new voting rules passed last year, the votes of several thousand Texans remain in jeopardy because they failed to comply with stricter ID requirements for voting by mail. Some frustrated voters had to overcome multiple hurdles to correct mistakes in time for their votes to be counted. Others gave up on voting absentee altogether.
The scale of disenfranchisement will not be known for at least another week, as voters still have time to cure ballots that were found defective because they did not include newly required ID numbers. But in various counties, the percentage of ballots being rejected has ballooned well beyond previous rejection rates. Because of Texas’ strict eligibility criteria for voting by mail, older voters and voters with disabilities will be the most affected.
“People have said this law was enacted to stop voter fraud, but honestly we’ve just seen voters who are qualified have to do the process twice, sometimes three times. Sometimes they quit,” said Lisa Wise, the elections administrator for El Paso County, where more than 1,000 ballots have been initially rejected.
Heading into primary election day Tuesday, counties reported initial rejection rates anywhere between 8% to 30%, with the ID requirements tripping up a significant share of voters in counties large and midsize, red and blue.
By contrast, less than 2% of mail-in ballots were rejected in the 2018 primary election, according to data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. The count of ballots marked for rejection because of the ID rules in Harris County alone — 11,135 as of Feb. 28 — easily surpassed the total number of ballots rejected statewide — roughly 9,400 — in 2018. The number of faulty ballots in Harris may still grow as late-arriving mail-in ballots are processed this week.
An early wave of rejected requests sent voting advocates and county election officials into a scramble, trying to get out word of the new requirements even as faulty applications were already on their way to county offices. Concerns the requirements would lead to a spike in rejected ballots, on which voters also had to provide the ID numbers, reached top state officials. That included Texas Secretary of State John Scott, the state’s chief elections officer, who on a Feb. 10 virtual town hall admitted he was worried mail-in voters would leave off the new ID information on completed ballots.
“That’s the part of this that is my biggest concern going forward as we get into the election cycle,” Scott said.
By then, his concern had already come to fruition. Earlier in the day, Harris County had reported they had flagged more than 1,000 mail-in ballots — 40% of the mail-in ballots returned up to that point — to be sent back to voters because they lacked an ID number. During the town hall, Fort Bend elections administrator John Oldham said about half of the 500 ballots returned to his county up to then were missing ID numbers.
“We hope that number will go down, but I fear that it won’t,” Oldham said.
I had some hope of that as well, when I saw the mail ballot numbers from the first day of the second week, but it was an illusion. This whole thing has been a disaster, for voters and election workers and election administrators and the process itself. The Republicans who pushed it are too cowardly to respond to questions about it now. We really need to know the full scope of the mess that they created. And we really need to work extra hard to ensure that everyone who wants and needs to vote by mail this fall is able to.