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Hundreds of Texans seeking to vote by mail in the upcoming March primary elections are seeing their applications for ballots rejected by local election offices trying to comply with stricter voting rules enacted by Texas Republicans last year.
Election officials in some of the state’s largest counties are rejecting an alarming number of mail-in applications because they don’t meet the state’s new identification requirements. Some applications are being rejected because of a mismatch between the new identification requirements and the data the state has on file to verify voters.
Under Texas’ new voting law, absentee voters must include their driver’s license number or state ID number or, if they don’t have one, the last four digits of their Social Security number on their applications. If they don’t have those IDs, voters can indicate they have not been issued that identification. Counties must match those numbers against the information in an individual’s voter file to approve them for a mail-in ballot.
In Harris County, 208 applications — roughly 16% of the 1,276 applications received so far — have been rejected based on the new rules. That includes 137 applications on which voters had not filled out the new ID requirements and 71 applications that included an ID number that wasn’t in the voter’s record.
In Travis County, officials said they’ve rejected about half of the roughly 700 applications they’ve received so far, with the “vast majority” of rejections based on the new voting law.
In Bexar County, officials have rejected 200 applications on which the ID section was not filled out. Another 125 were rejected because the voter had provided their driver’s license number on the application, but that number was not in their voter record.
“It’s disturbing that our senior citizens who have relished and embraced voting by mail are now having to jump through some hoops, and it’s upsetting when we have to send a rejection letter [when] we can see they’ve voted with us by mail for years,” said Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County election administrator.
Texas has strict rules outlining who can receive a paper ballot that can be filled out at home and returned in the mail or dropped off in person on Election Day. Only voters who are 65 or older automatically qualify. Otherwise, voters must qualify under a limited set of reasons for needing a mail-in ballot. Those include being absent from the county during the election period or a disability or illness that would keep them from voting in person without needing help or that makes a trip to the polls risky to their health.
Throughout last year’s protracted debate over the new voting law, state lawmakers were warned about potential issues that could arise from the new ID matching requirements, in part because the state does not have both a driver’s license and Social Security number for all of the roughly 17 million Texans on the voter rolls. Voters are not required to provide both numbers when they register to vote.
Last summer, the Texas secretary of state’s office indicated that 2,045,419 registered voters lacked one of the two numbers in their voter file despite the office’s efforts to backfill that information in the state’s voter rolls. Another 266,661 voters didn’t have either number on file.
Those numbers have since dropped. As of Dec. 20, 702,257 voters had only one number on file, while 106,911 didn’t have either, according to updated figures provided by the Texas secretary of state’s office.
Meanwhile, 493,823 registered voters didn’t have a driver’s license on file, which is the first number voters are asked to provide on both applications to register to vote and applications to vote by mail.
The new law is also tripping up voters who may be unaware of the new ID requirements. Callanen said she had to reject 30 voters who submitted an outdated application form that didn’t include the new ID field. Election officials in Williamson County, which has processed a total of 305 applications to vote by mail, said the same issue plagued a chunk of the applications that they rejected.
The sources of the outdated applications are unclear. While the Legislature banned county election officials from proactively sending out applications to vote by mail, even to voters who automatically qualify, voters can still receive unsolicited applications from campaigns and political parties.
Republican state lawmakers wrote the new ID requirements into sweeping legislation, known as Senate Bill 1, that further restricted the state’s voting process and narrowed local control of elections. Joining a broader legislative push to ratchet up voting rules across the country, Texas Republicans billed the proposals contained in SB 1 as an effort to safeguard elections from fraud, despite no evidence that it occurs on a widespread scale.
Warning it would raise new barriers to voting, SB 1 was denounced by advocates for voters with disabilities, voter advocacy groups and civil rights organizations with histories of fighting laws that could harm voters of color. It also prompted Democrats to flee the state last summer to delay consideration of the legislation, leaving the Texas House without enough members to conduct business for weeks. The wide-ranging law also faces several federal lawsuits.
Voters whose applications are rejected because of the ID requirements are supposed to have an opportunity to fix the issue. Building on Democratic proposals, the new voting law also created a new correction process for mail-in voting, including errors on applications. That process begins when county officials provide voters with a notice that their application was rejected and information on how to correct the defect, including through a new online ballot tracker.
A spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office said it would be providing “specific guidance to the counties in the near future to address any outstanding questions about this process.”
But the window for corrections is narrowing. County officials can receive applications to vote by mail until Feb. 18, but it takes time to process applications and prepare materials to inform voters of a rejection.
In Bexar County, Callanen is budgeting to hire two temporary workers just to handle processing rejections when the “deluge” of applications hits closer to the deadline.
Disclosure: The Texas Secretary of State has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.