Texas Primaries Give An Early Indication Of Chaos New Voting Restrictions Could Cause

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 13: A poll worker stamps a voters ballot before dropping it into a secure box at a ballot drop off location on October 13, 2020 in Austin, Texas. The first day of voting saw voters waiting hours ... AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 13: A poll worker stamps a voters ballot before dropping it into a secure box at a ballot drop off location on October 13, 2020 in Austin, Texas. The first day of voting saw voters waiting hours in line to cast their votes. Gov. Greg Abbott announced earlier this year that he would expand early voting for the election beginning on Oct. 13. Mail in voting began on Oct. 8 and has been part of a legal battle after Gov. Abbott declared each county may only have 1 mail in ballot drop off center, the ruling was later struck down in federal court but then the decision was upheld when a stay was ruled in the overturning. (Photo by Sergio Flores/Getty Images) MORE LESS

The veteran clerk of Travis County, Texas on Tuesday lamented that Texas’ new voting restrictions had led to a spike in rejected requests for absentee ballots in her county, and several others across the state. 

“This is what voter suppression looks like,” Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said at a press conference

As Texas’ March 1 primary date rapidly approaches, hundreds of would-be voters in the Austin area have had their ballot applications rejected due to the new restrictions, said DeBeauvoir, who announced in November that she is not seeking re-election after 35 years on the job. 

“This is all brand new,” added DeBeauvoir, referring to the new voting restrictions law. “This is all because of SB 1. These are new obstacles for voters. They’ve never had to deal with this kind of problem in the past.” 

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Given that primary voters are typically more engaged politically, and more familiar with the “rules of engagement” for voting, Texas’ new rules could lead to even more ballot request rejections in November’s general election, said Tammy Patrick, senior advisor to the elections program at Democracy Fund.

“In an election cycle where you have individuals who aren’t as familiar with the process, those rates are going to be even higher,” Patrick said.

The primary issue so far, DeBeauvoir said, is the ID requirement in the new law: Absentee voters in Texas are now required to include either their driver’s license number, a state ID number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on both their ballot applications and on the ballot envelopes themselves. 

What’s worse, the type of identification number voters use needs to match the type they used to register in the first place — forcing them to remember a minute detail sometimes decades after the fact, or else risk being rejected and having to fix their application. (The Department of Justice sued Texas over this and other new rules in November.) DeBeauvoir also said a state database that could hold some of the historical information was blank for Travis County, and that state officials had been extremely difficult to reach. 

“The voter is playing a guessing game with this,” DeBeauvoir said. “The voter is trying to remember the number that 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?’” 

“So far we have not received instructions from the secretary of state’s office to tell voters how to go look up this information, and therein is the beginning of the problem for voters,” she added.

Of the roughly 1,900 ballot requests received by Travis County as of Tuesday morning, DeBeauvoir said more than 500 had been rejected. About half of rejected applications didn’t fill out the ID field, and around 50 additional applications had included an ID number that did not match state records, DeBeauvoir said: “They didn’t guess right.”

A Pattern Evident In Several Counties

The spike in rejected ballot applications was evident across several Texas counties in recent days, as voters seek to participate in upcoming party primaries. 

Williamson County’s rejection rate was 40%, due to issues similar to what Travis County outlined, Austin’s Fox affiliate reported.

In Harris County, 16% of applications have been rejected based on new restrictions, the Texas Tribune reported Thursday, including a majority in which voters had not filled out the new ID requirements, and 71 applications that included a mismatched ID number. 

In Bexar County, the Tribune reported, 200 rejected applications did not include a filled-out ID section, and 125 applications that included a driver’s license number were nonetheless rejected because that number did not match their voter record. 

The county’s election administrator, Jacque Callanen, said they were sending rejection letters to voters who “we can see they’ve voted with us by mail for years.” 

Patrick, the Democracy Fund advisor, told TPM that Texas’ new rules differ from those in other states, where officials use a variety of information, such as signature analysis, to confirm voters’ identity.

“In most states, when they’re doing voter authentication, you err on the side of the voter,” Patrick said. “You look at the totality of evidence to say, ‘is this the person that it says they are?’”

“In this case, if you have a totality of evidence that demonstrates that this is the voter, and yet you still have to reject it, that’s really problematic,” she added.

The ID requirement is just one of several new obstacles in Texas’ new law: Voters can’t use outdated ballot application forms, nor can they request an absentee ballot for their spouse, as they have in years past. Voters with disabilities are no longer able to speak to election officials through an assistant, as they have in years past, DeBeauvoir noted Tuesday — “even if the voter lacks the ability to communicate with us.” 

The Travis County clerk also noted that the new Republican voting restrictions make it illegal for public officials to promote mail-in voting, which DeBeauvoir said had tied her and other officials’ hands, even on simple advice such as suggesting that voters include every available ID number on their ballot applications.

Separately, the Texas secretary of state’s office said this week that a paper shortage is limiting the number of voter registration forms the state can distribute. 

A spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office did not return TPM’s request for comment Tuesday. But in a statement Friday, Secretary of State John Scott said “We urge all county election officials to contact the Texas Secretary of State’s office to seek advice and assistance on the correct method of processing mail ballot applications.”

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