With COVID-19 cases on the rise and the March primary fast approaching, county officials across the state are rejecting a high number of applications submitted by voters who wish to vote by mail instead of going to the polls.
The issue centers on new requirements passed by state lawmakers last year during the 87th Texas Legislature and the special sessions that followed. Senate bill 1, by state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, ushered in sweeping changes to election procedures, including what information must be included on an application for a mail-in ballot.
The law requires that applications include a potential voter's driver's license numbers or Social Security information. That information must match the data on the person's previously-submitted voting record. Critics of the provision say most people don't remember which number they used when originally registering.
In Bexar County, 42 of the 80 ballot applications received Thursday were rejected, Bexar County Elections administrator Jacque Callanen told Texas Public Radio. And roughly half of Travis County's mail-in ballot applications for the March primary election have been rejected, KUT reported Thursday.
Many who spoke out against SB 1 before it passed said the legislation was designed to disenfranchise voters. Now, they say the high number of rejected ballots proves that's exactly what is happening.
"‘It's making the process not only more difficult to follow along but people are scared to put perhaps their voter information, their driver's license, their Social Security number, to have it mailed around," Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria told Houston Public Media.
Of the 1,276 mail-in ballot applications received to date by Harris County, Longoria said 208 have been rejected, about 16 %. But in 2018, only 4,979 applications were rejected out of 78,745, about 6 %.
"Senate bill 1, as predicted by election officials, is making it harder for voters to apply to vote by mail," she said.
State watchdog groups are also weighing in, and are urging voters to be more proactive this election cycle.
"As things stand now, about half of those voters are being blocked from having their voices heard," Stephanie Gomez, the associate director at Common Cause Texas, said in a statement. "If this isn't fixed, this single provision of SB 1 could block up to a half-million Texans from voting by mail this year."
"In the meantime, we urge all Texans to be your own advocates for your freedom to vote," added Gomez. "While the politicians in charge are determined to make it as hard as possible to vote, Common Cause Texas is ramping up our Texas-sized election protection to ensure our communities can make their voice heard at the ballot box."
Hughes' district office didn't respond to a request for comment on the criticisms levied against his legislation. But the Texas Secretary of State's office, which oversees state elections, released a statement Friday urging county administrators "to seek advice and assistance on the correct method of processing mail ballot applications.”
The office also singled out Travis County, which Texas Secretary of State John Scott said "made the decision to reject these mail ballot applications before contacting our office."
"We call on Travis County to immediately review and re-examine the mail ballot applications in question to determine whether they were processed in accordance with state law, with the goal of reinstating and minimizing any disruption to eligible voters who have properly submitted their application for ballot by mail," Scott said. "We anxiously await the results of their re-processing of these mail ballot applications.”
The statement follows a brief back-and-forth on Twitter Thursday where Scott's office and Travis County officials traded jabs over how the offices communicate.
While that bickering unfolds in Austin, election officials hundreds of miles away told KERA they hope there is enough time to educate potential voters of the changes to mail-in ballot procedures before upcoming registration deadlines.
"Anytime you do anything like this and ask for more information without a lot of notice or information being given out to the public you're going to have issued like this," said Lisa Wise, the El Paso County Elections Administrator.
Wise said her office has only received 103 applications for mail-in ballots, but 23 of those were rejected — including 11, or roughly 10 %, that didn't meet the state's new identification requirements. The others didn't indicate party affiliations as required or lacked other information. Wise said her office has also received more applications that haven't yet been processed.
"We're just trying to make sure we can turn around the notifications as soon as possible to let voters know" about the changes, she said.
Another hurdle in processing the applications is that some voters are sending in old applications instead of the newer versions now required under SB1.
In Tyler, Smith County Elections Administrator Michelle Allcon said her office has only rejected a small number of ballot applications, but those were all due to residents not using the new form.
"The rejections that we've had are due to them using forms that expired in the November 2021 election," she said.
In the Rio Grande Valley's Hidalgo County, 64 out of the 77 mail-in applications have been rejected so far. Hidalgo County Elections Analyst Sal Hernandez said the office does not have exact figures, but that a large number of the rejections were due to outdated forms.
"People are not fully aware of it even though it's on the website," he said. "We have sent them new applications."